We live in strange times. Debates about things that matter get so obscured by political weirdness that it takes the intervention of an industry giant to point out the bleeding obvious in order to bring sense into a discussion.
The industry giant came in the form of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and the bleeding obvious was about the importance of Australia’s 457 visa program to growing tech companies .
It is bleeding obvious that home-grown tech companies would struggle without access to international tech experience, and that by turning the 457 program into a political football was putting the entire sector at risk.
It does seem incredible that these things need to be said out loud. Mr Cannon-Brookes was speaking on ABC radio this week – the full interview is worth listening to for the simplicity of a point well-made.
Atlassian is a big user of 457 visas. Of the approximately 1,000 staff the company employs in Australia, about 25 per cent are on 457 visas. That’s a big number.
But here’s the thing about Mike Cannon-Brookes frustrations.
The issue for the tech sector is not about smart people, he says (there are lots of smart people here) and it’s not about talent (lots of talented people, too). And it’s not about training (and it’s definitely not about trying to avoid training!)
It’s about experience. That is, senior, skilled, technical talent. People who have a decade working at the heart of successful, fast-growing tech companies.
These people exist in Australia in tiny numbers, because the home-grown software industry is so small.
“We don’t have a big technology industry here and we certainly didn’t have one ten years ago,” Mr Cannon-Brookes said. “So if we’re looking for people with ten years’ experience, they largely don’t exist in anywhere near the quantity that the industry needs.”
“So we import that talent in order to train the graduates and other young people that we have here.”
“We’ve got extremely talented people here [in Australia] and we have extremely smart people coming out of universities. They just don’t have the experience we need.”
Mr Cannon-Brookes says the experience in most demand is highly-paid and difficult to acquire. It can take six months to convince them to come. They have to move family.
“This is definitely not a cheaper option, but it is a good option for getting the skills we need into this country.”
Atlassian fully-funds ten scholarship positions at university and it hire 80 graduates directly from universities. But you cannot train a decade of experience.
The frustration about the political debate about tightening the 457 visa scheme, and all the political rhetoric that comes with it is that it does not references key, publicly available statistics about the 457 visa program.
Specifically, he points to the number of visas being issued having been in decline for several years (down from more than 70,000 a few years ago to 44,000 this year).
“There is a danger here that [policy-makers] throw everything out with the bathwater,” Mr Cannon-Brookes said.
“It’s a very dangerous situation. None of them are talking about the statistics or the facts about what is actually happening with 457s,” he said.