Skills crisis: Video gaming boss unloads on Immigration NZ

The head of this country’s largest video gaming studio has unloaded on Immigration NZ with both barrels amid the tech skills squeeze.

Wellington-based PikPok has 190 staff and chief executive Mario Wynands says it needs more.

“We’d be bigger, but the border situation means we are unable to bring in necessary experienced specialists from overseas that we can’t source locally.

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“Immigration has been inexplicably denying our applications despite the candidates meeting all outlined criteria easily.”

He adds, “Immigration NZ think they are protecting local jobs. But without us being able to fill some specialist senior manager and mentoring roles, our ability to hire staff locally has slowed too. So their actions are doing the opposite.

“We have four experienced specialists we’d bring in tomorrow from overseas if we could, jumping through all necessary inbound traveller hoops.”

Each of the four would, “amplify existing revenue streams and help open up new opportunities, leading to more local hires and upskilling of local talent”, Wynands says.

The Government has ruled out a “tech visa”, with Immigration NZ saying skilled IT staff can be brought in under the “Other Critical Worker” category – for a job where unique skills are required, and the pay is at least twice the medium wage.

But companies including Vodafone NZ, Datacom, Raygun and now Wynands PikPok have told the Herald that applications are getting tied up in red tape and often going nowhere.

In June, Immigration NZ said only 15 highly skilled tech workers had come in under an Other Critical Worker visa (the Herald has asked the agency for an update).

Raygun founder JD Trask complained about what he saw as a rising “anti-immigrant” attitude, and a visa application being derailed when he upped a worker’s salary by $10,000 to meet the other critical worker threshold of $106,080 – only to have Immigration NZ raise the bar to $112,320 while the application lay unopened during July.

Even this morning (August 16), the red tape remains tangled, with Immigration NZ listing both $106,080 and $112,320 as the twice-median-wage figure on different parts of its website.

Wynands comments come just days after Amazon confirmed it will shift production of the Lord of the Rings TV show to the UK, citing various reasons including “logistical challenges” which some commentators have translated to mean a lack of available space in managed isolation.

'Unprofessional and embarrassing'

As things stand, PikPok – like several other tech companies that have complained to the Herald – has simply given up.

“We’d easily have another half a dozen roles that we’d like to fill immediately with qualified candidates we can only find overseas,” Wynands says.

“But we’ve basically stalled interviewing overseas candidates for other roles because it is frankly unprofessional and embarrassing to do so when we have no pathway or timeframe on which we can reliably bring people into the country.”

Why not remote-hire for remote work?

The pandemic has seen a remote-working revolution. So why can’t Wynands simply hire offshore talent, then let them work from their home country?

“In terms of specialists, game development is extremely collaborative, which makes trying to work remotely from different timezones very difficult,” Wynands says.

“Not having particularly experienced specialists on the ground has slowed our adoption of certain cutting-edge technologies, tools, techniques, and processes, and stunted the mentoring and training of more junior team members.

“We’ve also experienced situations where a lack of in-house oversight has resulted in both costly mistakes and missed opportunities.”

Going backwards

Rubbing salt into the wound, Wynands says the local video-gaming industry is actually losing some of its existing staff because of government inaction.

“What’s worse is, the border situation is a one-way membrane, meaning we’ve lost some senior staff to overseas studios and we have no way to replace them,” he says.

“Australian studios, in particular, are capitalising on their recently announced tax incentives to poach talent from New Zealand, as a way to deal with their own border limitations.”

One of Wynands’ peers, RocketWerkz founder Dean Hall, recently made a similar complaint, saying our government has been lavishing tax breaks on the film industry while shunning video gaming.

That undermines video gaming, Hall said, because in many technical areas, the two industries are competing for the same staff. Hall said gaming was on track to be a billion-dollar export earner – but that it would get there faster if it didn’t have to compete for personnel against film companies who enjoyed deep subsidies and, now, Australian game developers reaping tax incentives. The Government says it’s keeping a watching brief on the situation across the Tasman.

Bigger than the border

Earlier this month, in the wake of a major report detailing the scope of the tech skills crisis, TechNZ head Graeme Muller said his group was “Calling for rapid action by the Government to treat critical tech skills with at least the same enthusiasm as they do fruit pickers, actors and sportspeople”.

Muller added, “But this is just not happening, which is damaging the economy, causing hundreds of jobs to be shifted out of New Zealand, hurting our homegrown global software companies and halting critical tech projects for New Zealand businesses and government agencies.”

The report, co-authored by Muller’s TechNZ and a second industry group, IT Professionals NZ and released last month, acknowledged border restrictions weren’t the only issue.

The pandemic had revealed an over-reliance on hiring from offshore while local training fell away.

The report said both the industry and the education system had to reanimate training efforts, and encourage more people into the industry.

It also pegged a lack of diversity as a key problem, and said addressing that would help top up the funnel.

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Muller agreed with all of the steps, but said they would take time. In the interim, the Government had to take urgent steps to bring in more workers, as it has already done in other sectors.

“In theory, it is simply a case of agreeing that with thousands of open roles, these technical skills are not readily available in New Zealand,” Muller said.

In practice, change is taking a while – at least for the tech sector.

And Wynands adds that in the fast-moving tech sector, there will always be a need to draft-in specialists from overseas for some positions. Not being able to do so puts a handbrake on local tech companies’ growth.

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