Mood of the Boardroom: Skills shortages, closed borders front of mind

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson says if New Zealand is to stay competitive we need people with great digital skills.

"At Spark we've seen a talent scarcity. But it isn't only us," says Hodson. "When, recently, I toured the country talking to customers, I saw, almost every industry is in the same position.

"Many businesses are looking at how they can lift their digital footprint and continue to transform. The skills needed to do that are in demand everywhere. There are no easy answers to the problem while our borders remain shut."

Spark has a two-pronged approach to dealing with the skills shortage.

First, the company is working with tertiary institutions looking at the pathways for people to get into technology careers. Hodson says worldwide there will be 149 million new digital technology roles over the next four years. "There is an opportunity for New Zealanders to participate in that."

"We want more people coming into the skills funnel," says Hodson. "Yet within that we want to see greater representation from women, from Māori and Pasifika."

Spark is working with organisations like Champions for Change and looking at ideas like a professional apprenticeship where young people are given an opportunity to work in several organisations as they learn skills.

Meanwhile, the company has an urgent pressing need for specific specialist skills with important gaps to fill in areas such as cyber security, data analysis, automation and user experience.

Hodson says we need a way to get these people into the country. "We've always relied on a combination of local people and international expertise. Overseas people with key skills have an important role to play helping to create local capability."

Looking ahead, Hodson wants to see an acceleration in the vaccination programme so we can open the border sooner and bring more skilled people into the country.

Spark is on the frontline when it comes to helping New Zealanders work or study at home during lockdowns. Technology does much of the heavy lifting.

Hodson says Spark's customers have become noticeably more resilient in the last year.

"When we first went into lockdown last year many people got themselves set up to work, learn and connect from home. They have had bandwidth increases, companies made sure people were able to work from home, that they had the right security and so on.

"Since then, that has been hardened. When we went to level four this time with a shorter period from decision to entry, we saw some customers still faced challenges, but compared with a year ago, we moved more seamlessly into that".

Spark's networks hit a new traffic peak on the day after New Zealand went into the August level four lockdown. It continues to run at peak levels. There is a noticeable shift away from the evening peak as families watch streaming television or play online games to heavy network traffic throughout the day.

"One reason the networks cope with the extra demand, is that Spark continues to invest in capacity", she says.

Spark's business is mainly centred on the delivery of digital services to customers in New Zealand.

This limits the impact of supply chain bottlenecks.

Yet, Spark remains a major supplier of electronic hardware to business customers. It sells phones, laptops, modems and other devices.

Hodson sees two problems: Covid and the geopolitical disruption to global supply chains which was emerging before the pandemic.

"At times like this where devices are important for people to work, learn and connect from home we need to keep our mind on the prize.

"We continue to look at alternative suppliers."

Spark has also worked to keep larger stocks of key technology products in the country as opposed to ordering direct from overseas.

Much of New Zealand's business sector was already on a digital transformation path when the pandemic first hit. Hodson says many have brought their plans forward.

Others who were yet to start are now moving.

She says that cloud computing is a key enabling technology.

Spark is addressing the increased demand by adding a further 10MW additional capacity to the Takanini data centre.

When complete it will be the biggest of kinds in New Zealand. Some 60 per cent of the additional capacity has already been contracted.

Jolie Hodson's top three issues

• Path through Covid-19: Our number one challenge as a nation continues to be our path through Covid-19, and our transition to a world where we are able to live with Covid like we do any other influenza. The clear path to that future is our vaccination programme, which will in time reduce the potential risk to New Zealanders of reopening our borders with countries in a similar risk position.

• Transforming NZ economy: Transforming economy to one that is high-tech and low-carbon.

• Creating a more equitable Aotearoa: Ensuring a just transition to a high-tech and low-carbon economy.

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