NZ loosens border restrictions to lure tech talent

New Zealand Border Exemptions Technology

In a bid to plug the country’s growing digital skills gap, the New Zealand Government has announced it will loosen border restrictions to enable 600 “much-needed” technology specialists to enter and work in the country.

Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications, Dr David Clark announced the new border class exemption rules on Monday, with the Government hoping to lure back tech specialists, including software development, product management, and cybersecurity talent, to the country, which has faced significant shortages through the Covid lockdowns.

“The [technology] sector is now one of our top three exporters, and jobs in tech have been growing at twice the rate of the general economy. It has continued to expand during the Covid-19 pandemic, placing pressure on the demand for talent,” Clark said.

While only a modest intake, Clark said the exceptions would go some way to “relieve some of the pressure on New Zealand tech firms and support their continued growth and export earnings”.

“We’re carefully targeting areas of the sector where industry has highlighted a clear need for overseas talent including, software development, product managers, cyber security and interactive media.”

Clark said the exemptions attempt to balance the need for tech talent with the Government’s ongoing Covid containment strategy.

“We’ve seen other countries open up too early and have to reverse decisions. So it’s a balancing act of supporting our economy and minimising the risks to our communities and health system.”

While welcoming the announcement, peak tech industry body, NZTech, said the exception for just 600 specialists was “a drop in the ocean” for an industry and public sector facing critical digital skills shortages and an upward growth trajectory.

NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller said the number of exemptions pales in comparison to “the history of 3,500-4,500 tech visas in the years preceding the border closures”.

Just before the pandemic struck, New Zealand’s technology sector employed 114,000 people, making it the country’s third-largest export. The sector also contributes around eight per cent to NZ’s GDP.

NZTech was already urging the Government a year ago to enable the “rapid entry of targeted candidates with critical advanced digital skills”.

Muller at the time said local tech firms were struggling to find suitable tech talent “with critical digital skills”, including data analysts, software programmers, and cybersecurity experts.

“With closed borders, it is obvious that what was once a skills shortage could quickly become a catastrophe if not managed well,” he said.

Digital economy minister David Clark said the provision of the new border exception “is part of the next step in Government’s carefully phased approach to reconnecting with the world”.

He recognised the industry as one of the “top three exporters”, with jobs in the tech industry “growing at twice the rate of the general economy”.

“It has continued to expand during the Covid-19 pandemic, placing pressure on the demand for talent,” he added.

The exemptions change forms part of the wider Government’s Industry Transformation Plan – first announced in 2019 and then updated during the pandemic in mid-2020 – a multi-sector, government-industry initiative to lift productivity and growth.

A key focus of the Plan is a commitment to invest in developing domestic talent, rather than relying on overseas talent to fill the gaps.

The Government said further details on the border exception process will be provided to industry in the new year.