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With 457 Visas Axed, We Must Ensure Australian Tech Remains Competitive

There aren't enough tech workers in Australia -- or in America -- to meet demand.

21/04/2017 9:38 AM AEST | Updated 21/04/2017 10:17 AM AEST

This week's announcement came as a shock: Australia's 457 Visa will be replaced by one that narrows the type of jobs which can be filled by foreigners. My first reaction on social media was to warn that this may stunt Australia's tech sector. That's true in the short-term, but in the long-term we want to see our industry thrive exclusively on homegrown talent.

Less than 3 percent of Xero's Australian workforce is on 457 visas, but those few roles are crucial to our business. Some require a decade of experience in specialties such as artificial intelligence. Sadly those types of jobs can't always be filled quickly, given Australia's workforce today.

The unfortunate reality is there aren't enough tech workers in Australia -- or in America -- to meet demand. Whether it's in Silicon Valley or Melbourne, tech firms are growing faster than the pool of local workers. There's a global war for talent and, like all nations, Australia is doing its best to compete.

Looking forward, the best-case scenario would be one where Australian tech firms can continue to bring in global talent when a local fit can't be found.

A common question on social media this week has been: "Do tech companies hire foreign workers because they're cheaper?" The answer is no. They're actually more expensive than their equivalent Australian worker, because a 457 visa adds sponsorship costs.

Looking forward, the best-case scenario would be one where Australian tech firms can continue to bring in global talent when a local fit can't be found. These foreign experts often upskill their Australian colleagues, and the whole company benefits.

The worst-case scenario would be one where tech firms can't fill roles locally and securing a visa becomes too onerous and slow. This would force some of these innovative and growth-creating jobs offshore, to their offices in the U.S. or Europe. It's hard to see how that would benefit anyone in Australia.

The government and tech sector must ensure the hiring needs of today are met, while preparing for the challenges and demands of tomorrow through education and retraining.

In the meantime, we can take steps to invest in local talent to stay ahead of the curve, and ensure that Australian tech remains competitive. For example, we should teach children the basics of coding at the primary school level, and promote careers in tech for school-aged females. Of course, this needs to extend right through to tertiary education to ensure and that we're supporting graduates as they transition into the workforce.

Working together, the government and tech sector must ensure the hiring needs of today are met, while preparing for the challenges and demands of tomorrow through education and retraining.

I have no doubt we can find a visa approach that benefits all Australians and keeps our tech sector competitive with the world's best.

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