Digital divides and skills shortages: ‘We need shared solutions for shared problems’

In a world where digital and technological literacy will become increasingly crucial to domestic and international economies, we can’t afford not to make these opportunities available to all Grayson Zhang, Ministry of Social Development

One of my first jobs was at the largest school in New Zealand, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu. Te Kura was fascinating for a number of reasons. It had a roll of over 20,000 students, ranging from ECE to adult learners. Almost the whole curriculum was delivered via correspondence learning - over phone and email, and via Te Kura’s online learning platform.

The most amazing part was the diversity of student demographics, from kids in remote rural areas to high-performing students who travelled frequently for international competitions, and needed the flexibility of a learning programme that could be delivered anywhere, anytime. For me, this was a vivid demonstration of the way technology and innovation can present tangible solutions to social challenges.

I currently work at the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), in the Employer Services unit.

We collaborate with national employers and providers to help New Zealanders into sustainable employment. It’s easy to see the analogies between the challenges facing our clients and those facing many of the students at my last workplace: lack of access to opportunities, geographic isolation, and other socioeconomic factors.

These are some of the key barriers contributing to the issue of youth unemployment, with 12.8 per cent of youth (aged 15 to 24) not currently in education, employment or training. Once again, I find myself thinking about the potential solutions that technology can offer in this space, by linking individuals – especially young people – to possibilities and opportunities they might never have previously considered.

According to NZTech’s most recent annual report, the tech sector makes the third highest contribution to total export earnings in New Zealand.

Grayson Zhang of the Ministry of Social Development

There is an important question to be raised about the social impact of automation and digitisation, as well as their effect on businesses and economies

The tech industry is also the fastest growing industry in the country. This growth inevitably affects a wide range of other sectors, and scarcely does a week go by without another news article about the impact of automation and digitisation on the domestic and global workforce.

Given the rapid changes we’re already seeing, let alone the ones on their way, there is an important question to be raised about the social impact of these changes, as well as their effect on businesses and economies.

The digital divide is well-documented, both in New Zealand and internationally. This includes immediate concerns about the availability of internet access and access to computers and related devices. But it also highlights the need for better access to digital skills and knowledge.

In a world where digital and technological literacy will become increasingly crucial to domestic and international economies, we can’t afford not to make these opportunities available to all. Meanwhile, there is a massive shortage of skilled workers in the IT industry right now, not only in New Zealand but globally.

NZTech’s 2015 briefing paper, Advancing Women to Provide Needed Tech Sector Skills, raises a salient point: in order to address the IT/technology skills shortage, a robust approach to organisational diversity must be taken to create a larger talent force for sector employers to draw from. This can only be achieved if we start to lay the foundations of a sustainable industry pipeline at all levels, from education through to employment. Young people especially need clear, tangible pathways into the industry, and concrete career signposting from those within the industry.

This represents an exciting opportunity for government, industry, educators and individual businesses to collaborate on potential solutions. With support and input from key industry partners, MSD is currently developing an IT work experience pilot programme that seeks to address some of the issues highlighted above.

The pilot will be trialled in Auckland to start, and aims to provide a cohort of youth (aged 18 to 24) MSD clients with industry-recognised training and certification, as well as paid, project-based work experience. Participants will also have the opportunity to gain advice and mentorship from employer and industry representatives, and hear about the wide range of opportunities and pathways available in the IT and tech sectors.

The initiative seeks to combine the practical with the aspirational: participants will come away with a better developed foundational IT skillset, but hopefully also a keener sense of focus and purpose.

For industry employers, this is an opportunity to explore a new, diversity-driven approach to talent sourcing, and to contribute to the dialogue about New Zealand’s future IT/tech talent pipeline.

Of course, this initiative is only one piece of a much bigger picture, and it’s exciting to see the range of other initiatives out there, each tackling a different piece of the puzzle, but ultimately working from shared understandings toward shared goals.

We at MSD are fortunate to have the support of committed industry partners, and we encourage any others interested to make contact and join the conversation.

Grayson Zhang ( is an account manager at the Ministry of Social Development (Employer Services). He is currently developing an IT Work Experience pilot initiative for disadvantaged youth aged 18 to 24) and would like to talk to businesses and organisations who want to offer opportunities for mentorships and project work to this group.

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