Diversity at work

Across New Zealand, IT organisations lament the difficulty of hiring skilled staff. But are they looking hard enough at tapping migrants in their midst to ease the skills shortage?

Sumit Arora migrated to New Zealand in 2002, hopeful of landing a job in IT. He had completed a computer technology course in India, and was an Oracle certified programmer. Prior to coming to Auckland, he applied for jobs online through recruitment firms and was told they needed to interview him personally. "But when I came over, it was totally different. Not even a single consultant interviewed me."

For Arora, this was the start of a protracted struggle to find a job in IT in New Zealand. He sent out four to five applications a day, and received up to 80 rejections within two months.

Unable to get a foothold in the IT sector, Arora worked as a crew member at a restaurant in Pakuranga, and in six months was promoted to assistant manager. On the advice of a friend, he enrolled in a six-month visual basic .net course at the Auckland University of Technology. After finishing the course, he applied for jobs, and was unsuccessful even in getting part-time work. The recruiters said he lacked "New Zealand experience".

He had contemplated taking a masters in information technology but hesitated due to financial constraints and the fact that his fellow migrants from India who took up postgraduate courses are still jobless.

In 2003, he and two other friends, both IT professionals who also migrated from India, decided to go into business. Today, they own a dairy in Mount Wellington.

Karamjit Chadha works as an IT consultant, but his early efforts at getting into the New Zealand IT sector were just as strenuous. Chadha arrived in New Zealand in 1988. He has a bachelor in computer management and was an IT director of a textile company in North India, which he says had around 300 employees and a turnover of $300 million.

But when he applied for jobs in New Zealand, he was told he was overqualified. "I had to start from scratch." He accepted short-term jobs writing programs "just to get going" and got a break as an analyst programmer at a polytechnic.

He also worked in a financial accounting software company, and started his own venture. In 1996, he joined Greentree. Today, he shuttles between New Zealand and Australia to work with Greentree clients.

"I never had a problem," he says of his current employer. He attributes this to the fact that a number of people in the company have worked for multinational corporations and overseas. "I know I have been lucky. But getting a job in New Zealand is still difficult."

He feels a certain pang of sadness, even anger, when he reads about the IT skills shortage. "I have been there, I know," he says. "Basically, when they say they can't find IT people, they should say, white IT people."

Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, is only too aware of stories faced by migrants like Arora and Chadha. The chamber runs quarterly surveys among its members. For the past four to five years, labour and skills shortages inevitably have been coming out as the top major constraints to growth.

Four years ago, Barnett harnessed the resources of the chamber to help alleviate this shortage. "One of the things that really frustrated me at that time, was I knew about 25 per cent of those that were unemployed were new migrants," he says.

"They had come to New Zealand with skills, for a fresh start and we said as a country we are going to provide them an opportunity to use their skills. And it appeared to me the red carpet treatment lasted as long as the Customs door at the airport. After that, they were on their own."

At the same time, many job advertisements specified at the bottom: "Must have New Zealand experience". This was a way of filtering out certain people, says Barnett. "It was a way of acknowledging yes, there were other groups of people that may be available, but we wanted people who looked like us, sounded the same and could talk about cricket and rugby on Monday morning at the tea table."

He says as a result, many migrants go through a huge amount of rejection "by employers who should know better, who should be more willing to take somebody that is culturally different into their work environment because these people are skilled".

Barnett approached Immigration New Zealand. He told them the chamber had a database of members and that he was keen to match up these members with some of the skills that were available from the migrant workforce. He also wanted, at the same time, to "start preaching a message around tolerance and diversity in the workplace".

New kiwis

The result is the website which has about a thousand people seeking new roles in New Zealand. The skills cover all commercial occupations including ICT.

In the past 12 months, says Barnett, the site has helped over 400 people find jobs, and around 45 to 50 of those were IT roles. There are around 150 candidates currently registered in the site who are looking at jobs in IT and new media.

The chamber also launched the New Kiwis Work Experience program, which takes in highly qualified migrants who are on unemployment benefits and helps them find work experience and jobs with Auckland businesses.

The chamber helps them prepare their CVs and gives pointers in answering questions during interviews. Some candidates are offered paid employment right away, or are taken in on a "work experience basis", says Elizabeth Smith, coordinator of the New Kiwis program.

Barnett says in the last 18 months, the chamber has helped 30 ICT professionals get jobs through this program. Some of the companies that employed the candidates were Peace Software, IBM, Whitcoulls, TelstraClear, NIWA, Nokia and The Display Group.

Jiafeng Qin is currently in such a program, working as a software developer with Quantum. In 1999, Qin, who now uses the first name "Neal" at work, enrolled in a masters in computer science at the University of Auckland. After graduation Qin struggled to find a job. Qin, who was a civil engineer in China, was told he had no "New Zealand work experience".

Qin has completed the first month of his eight-week work experience program, and is looking to working full-time at Quantum. He says without the assistance from the chamber, he would probably be still looking for a job. He recalls in one year alone, he applied to 80 companies, most of which did not reply to his letters. Today, it is a more confident Qin who states, "I am making progress everyday. And I feel quite good working here."

But for Abdelfattah Qasem, who arrived in New Zealand four years ago, getting into the IT industry is a series of heartbreaks and humiliation. Qasem is originally from Palestine and worked for more than 20 years in various IT roles, of which the last one was in Kuwait, before settling in Christchurch with his family.

He has not held a full-time job since then. He has done data entry and analysis work, and is on call for short-term projects.

Realising a New Zealand qualification would help improve his chances for employment, Qasem says he did papers on network administration, network security and project management. In January, Qasem told the Dominion Post he has submitted more than 500 applications, none of which led to interviews. Since then, he has applied to 15 more companies. He was short-listed for one job but did not hear anymore from the company.

A recruiter recently advised him to change his first name to "Ed". He felt sad about this. "I thought New Zealand was a multicultural country."

He is giving New Zealand a few more months and if he still does not get a job in IT, he is considering moving to Australia. He has friends with similar backgrounds and experiences who are now working across the Tasman. "It is their loss," says Qasem of the companies that turned him down. "I try to add something to each place I work for. Unfortunately all of my experience is overseas. If someone will check my experience in the companies I worked for, they will know that I am very capable."

New Zealand is considered very important

Betty Lin is a commerce graduate from the University of Auckland, where she majored in marketing and e-business. She now works for a software company but her fellow graduates, who like her, migrated from Taiwan with their families, were not as fortunate.

One of them is a software engineer who has a masters degree in computer science. He recently visited Taiwan, where a number of organisations interviewed him and offered him jobs, so he is seriously considering moving there.

"Well, all I can say is, be patient," says Ramin (not his real name), a software engineer from Iran. He now works for a software company, but still gets phone calls from agents who received his CV 18 months ago.

He has a "friendly advice" to fellow migrants: "If you do not have a clear master plan and plan B as well, New Zealand is not the right choice."

Greentree's Chadha adds, "Get ready for a two- or three-year lag before you get a real job - full-time or part-time."

In a reader survey of MIS readers last year, staff recruitment and retention emerged as the number one management concern of CIOs (33.9 per cent of respondents). And yet, according to the Department of Labour, 2348 IT professionals were accepted under the Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) from February 2004 to the present.

The SMC came into effect in February 2004, where the principal applicants define their profession using a New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations code. The figure could be bigger because other people may have IT qualifications or work in a job with an IT component, but did not use the more than 60 codes referring to IT classifications on their applications.

Yet, a number of these immigrants with IT qualifications are unemployed or underemployed. What is going on here?

One answer could lie in New Zealand firms placing a strong premium on "local experience" when hiring IT staff. The results of the first MIS New Zealand/absoluteIT CIO Salary Survey bear this out.

The survey, conducted in August 2005 across a stratified sample of 135 CIOs (defined as the most senior IT managers in the organisation), revealed that despite a reasonable proportion of respondents having overseas experience, an offshore stint seems to count for little once they are hiring their own staff. They very seldom mentioned education and IT experience outside New Zealand, or simply IT experience overseas, as "very important" attributes.

Overwhelmingly, IT experience in New Zealand is considered "very important" by 74.5 per cent of respondents.

Apart from this premium on local experience, today's immigrants may be paying for some historical baggage, as some New Zealand companies had unpleasant experiences with foreign-born staff.

A recruiter who declined to be identified, for instance, recalled that after the coup in Fiji in the late 80s, a number of Fijian Indians with IT skills came into the New Zealand market.

Unfortunately, many of the applicants had lied about their qualifications or skills and these came out only during the interviews and reference checks.

The recruiter says the applicants apparently wanted to get away from the desperate situation in their homeland. "But it did have a negative impact on how Fijian Indian applicants overall were perceived by employers at the time."

The same recruiter recalled that when Java was very new in the New Zealand market, some organisations with significant Java projects brought in teams of developers from India.

Unfortunately not enough time was spent on assimilating the recruits into the New Zealand way of life and several companies faced a "cultural nightmare" in their technology teams.

"There will certainly be people in hiring positions now who were involved in some of these projects and may have had their opinions on hiring migrants impacted by their experiences," says this recruiter.

Playing it safe

Stephen Whiteside, IT director, University of Auckland, says no long-term manager can say he or she has no recruitment failures. "If you are thinking of foreign nationals as a risk to what is already a risky process, you may be much more reluctant to take that risk.

Whereas, others who are more familiar with working with foreign nationals are used to seeing the difference and the benefits that come from it." He adds, "I think there is a natural desire to have the familiar, to play it safe."

Whiteside is used to working with a diverse staff. The university has 13,000 screens, the highest among New Zealand organisations. "We advertise jobs that would be attractive to people with large size experience" and the latter skills could only be available from migrants.

"We need to be open in recognising there will be differences, but by far someone's capability and experience outweighs that."

The university, for instance, has just undergone a restructure in its applications group and two of the three managers are new migrants. One is from Zimbabwe who "is a soccer follower rather than a rugby follower". Whiteside quips, "We don't see that as a barrier."

IT recruitment executives say candidates are assessed on the entire skills they could bring to the workplace, and how they would fit with the team.

"I don't believe there is any blatant racism being practised by hiring managers. If candidates are identified with the right skills (communication and technical), culture and personality fit to the hiring company, they will be included in the sh ortlist, regardless of their nationality," says Amanda van Ryn, general manager of Vision Recruitment.

"Most organisations are very multi-cultural these days and extremely open to accommodating people with different backgrounds, cultures, religions and beliefs. There are still some organisations that are more 'old school' and would always tend to hire New Zealanders as a preference."

She says clients of Vision Recruitment do not specify excluding candidates from a certain background or nationality. "They will generally look at people on their individual merits. It really comes down to the best fit for the team, and many hiring managers will not make new hires unless the individual will be a perfect fit to complement the existing team, as it impacts the entire work environment.

"Candidates need to be able to interact effectively with their peers, management, customers and users. We do not have clients who will rule out seeing an individual based on their nationality - but the question of their English speaking and communication skills is generally asked about, if the candidate is from a non-English speaking country."

Employers, she says, will rarely compromise even if there is a shortage of certain technical skills because "the cost of a bad hire is just too high".

She says there is a shortage of qualified people in the following areas: Software development (Java technologies and .net, web-based development); ERP and manufacturing business analysis, project management and consulting; and skilled sales and marketing professionals.

Grant Burley, director, absoluteIT, points out demand for certain skills fluctuate. "I don't honestly believe there is a skills shortage as it is being made out." Clients, he says, are saying they can not find the right skilled people as opposed to there aren't skilled people in the market.

"Employers have a choice and the person they will hire has to have the right skills, background and personality."

For an employer, he says, a candidate's personal and cultural side are just as important as technical ability. These are the "soft skills" that will enable an employee to work well in any company.

Burley says 30 per cent of people absoluteIT places each year are from overseas. "I firmly believe employers are more discerning. They will wait sometime until they find the right person." If they will experience difficulties, they will address the issue by getting someone with lesser skills if the need is that important or train someone, he explains.

Taking the plunge

John Blackham, CEO of software company XSol, says in the past six years, the company has hired around 40 employees, mostly immigrants. His company also takes in interns - often foreign students.

He looks for employees who will make good team members, are skilled and have a positive attitude. "We don't care where anyone is from," he says.

"Immigrants bring a lot more than technical skills," he notes. XSol has global clients and having staff coming from countries they deal with is very useful.

Blackham says one of the key things for XSol when it hires people from overseas is using a consultant who is a "combination of recruiter and HR manager". The consultant does not do the recruiting but helps organise the recruiting and vetting of new people. "When you deal with immigrants, there are a lot more issues of vetting and processing of paperwork. Recruitment agents sell you bodies, they want to do a good job for you but there is a limit to them understanding your problems.

In our business, attracting and hiring the right people is critical so we use a contract HR manager. He doesn't manage internal HR issues but he helps us organise things such as the review process."

If at all, Blackham says his problem is having access to people who have the necessary IT skills and want to come to New Zealand. "It would be great if within the IT industry, we could have a bulletin board or a clearing house for people who have certain skills and jobs, and with references up there."

He is seriously considering asking TradeMe to set up such a "bulletin board". Using the foremost online auction site for this purpose is important because unless the website has a wide profile, "You won't get the coverage you need."

He says this is a project an agency like the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise could pursue.

Chris Phillips, ANZ Linux team leader for IBM Global services, has staff coming from across the Asia-Pacific, the Americas and the UK. Having a culturally diverse workforce is crucial for the New Zealand-based Phillips.

His team members, based locally and across the Tasman, work on projects that involve global resourcing across different continents. There could be challenges with respect to "cultural differences and sometimes language", he admits. "But from a business perspective, it is extremely helpful. We are dealing with different customers in all those different groups and it is extremely important to understand those cultural differences.

"It really helps, particularly in Japan where they have a structured and culturally sensitive way of communicating."

Steve Sims, development director at Greentree, says around a quarter of his development team came from overseas, and they include staff originally from Asia, the UK and the Middle East.

By being open to having a multicultural workforce, Greentree was able to "get people with really good skills and very sharp capabilities". He says this is important as Greentree is competing for bigger companies in the war for talent.

Ian McCrae, CEO of Orion, which provides software for the health sector, says his company is growing 40 to 50 per cent per annum. McCrae estimates a third of this workforce are migrants. Two of his staff in Auckland are medical doctors from China who have retrained in IT and now work as software developers.

He says, however, when the company hires people from overseas, they are interviewed by four to six people. "We have to get the best people. Talent and cultural fit are important."

The experiences of these companies could perhaps shift the perspectives of organisations that may have reservations about tapping migrants in their midst.

Openness, it seems, is the key. Vision Recruitment's Amanda van Ryn says some managers may find a foreign name on a CV and presume that individual is not the right candidate. "At least be more open to meet or talk to the individual or make an initial contact, as you might be pleasantly surprised what results from a brief conversation," she says.

If not, they may miss out on someone like Prow Tovaranonte, an engineering consultant at Broadcast Communications Limited. "I'm not sure how prospective employers would react when they read my name," says Tovaranonte, who moved to Auckland after working in the BCL office in Christchurch.

But if they go past her obviously non-Kiwi name, they will find she has a bachelor of electrical and electronic engineering and a masters in engineering management from the University of Canterbury. If they interview her, they will realise the Thai-born Tovaranonte has a good command of spoken and written English, and adapts well to a new working and social environment.

They may even overlook someone like Thomas Tang, a pharmacist who retrained in IT when New Zealand employers did not recognise his credentials from China. Working part-time as a chef, Tang studied English, and completed a diploma in business (focusing in IT) at Unitec. His tutor recommended him to his current employer, and he has since worked in projects involving accounts receivable, distribution and manufacturing modules.

"Businesses ignore the resource of new migrants into this country at their peril," says Barnett of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. "If you are going to grow, you are going to be dependent on the availability of skills and unless you accept that having diversity in your workplace is going to be part of your growth strategy, you could deprive yourself of growth."

Do you want to share your views and experiences on diversity in the workplace? Please .