eHealth News: Tech skills shortage hitting digital health sector

A skills shortage means New Zealand’s data and digital health sector is struggling to recruit the people and skills needed to meet the demand for work and projects are being delayed, industry experts say.

31 August 2021 NEWS - editor Rebecca McBeth

NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller says problems getting tech professionals into the country is, “causing an explosion in salaries, delays in projects and offshoring of jobs”.

NZTech conducted a digital skills survey in July, which found there more than two thousand open jobs for highly paid tech people with specialist or technical skills in New Zealand.

Gina Hills, chief financial officer and executive vice-president of people at Orion Health says the shortage of experienced tech workers is a “very real concern” as the company needs to employ a number of software developers and engineers for new roles.

“The pandemic has meant a surge in available work in the digital health sector, as health systems everywhere have had to adapt to new modes of care delivery,” she says.

“The government has big ambitions for digital transformation across the board, but projects are being delayed because there’s just not enough talent to do the work.

“We are likely to see this knock-on effect take hold in the health sector too: how can our digital health industry rise to the challenge of the health sector reforms if we don’t have enough people to build and maintain the systems that are the enablers of these reforms?” Hills asked.

Sysmex NZ HR manager Leonie Woolnough agrees the skills shortage is across the board and trying to recruit from within the sector is difficult. Sysmex is going through a growth phase and is looking to fill eight roles.

“Digital health takes years to learn so being able to recruit people from within or people with that type of experience is important to us, and in New Zealand they are just not moving at the moment,” she says.

“Without the people and skills the industry risks not continuing to develop and innovate
and that has a long-term impact.”

Graeme Muller says the same skills are being fought for across multiple industries and public sectors, such as health, are more likely to struggle to compete when it comes to salaries.

Tech professionals can get into the country as ‘other critical workers’ if they are paid more than $112,000 a year and have ‘”unique experience and technical or specialist skills that are not readily obtainable in NZ”.

Muller says that’s causing a problem as the current interpretation of assessors at Immigration NZ is that software engineers and data scientists are skills that are readily available locally.

This means visa applications for people with digital skills have a lower than 40 percent success rate and only a few hundred people have come into the country since borders closed.

Pre-Covid, between 4,000 to 5,000 tech professionals were immigrating here every year.

“New Zealand is an attractive place to come so it’s not hard to recruit people, but it’s hard to get them visas,” Muller says.

“Most large tech firms are recruiting overseas and having to keep the staff overseas so those jobs are being lost out of New Zealand.”

The tech skills shortage is global so there are also international companies recruiting people in New Zealand to work for them remotely, putting a further squeeze on the local market.

NZHIT chief executive Ryl Jensen says there are a lot of job openings in the data and digital health space and “companies are starting to feel the pinch of not being able to get people”.

“If you don’t have the people to do the work then innovation is harder to support, scaling up is harder to support and even providing business-as-usual services is harder to do, and that has massive implications across the board,” she says.

“People power is incredibly important. Health providers, vendors and the Ministry all need the skills to be able to collaborate and get the job done.”

Muller says there is a lot of work going on in New Zealand to attract people into the tech sector, but there is still a need for experienced people to come into New Zealand.

NZ Tech is in discussions with the government about simplifying the visa process and removing the concept of ‘readily available’ and replacing it with something related to experience level.

“We have officials and Ministers who understand the implications: the next step is the government needs to work internally to address this within the realities of the pandemic,” he says.

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