Australian startups and immigration policy: A victim of the popular vote?

- June 27, 2014 4 MIN READ

Last week I wrote a column on the growing limitations our retrograde immigration policy presents on the startup community. This issue is not only a matter of urgency in terms of talent migration, but it presents a huge challenge on the growth front. We are facing a policy checkmate where new startups are prevented from acquiring talent and, with it, access to diverse ideas and markets.

At first sight, The 457 employer sponsorship visa scheme is the most immediate solution to the talent void in the country. The principle is seemingly simple: an employer has a need to fill a particular role with the local talent and seeks out a foreign individual to fill it. However, the complexity of the process, high costs and, the time-consuming nature of the requirements act as deterrents for new companies to take action. This is particularly true in the case of not-yet-validated startups and bootstrapped ventures.

Immigration policy, like most of the laws on the country, is informed by the popular vote and, therefore, by a large electorate who does not relate to the larger startup problem. It is very difficult for a voter in rural Western Australia to understand the plight of a tech founder in Darlinghurst. The world are so far apart in terms of priorities and economic impact. However, this problem belongs to all of us.

Since the column came out, I have been involved in many sometimes heated conversations about what needs and should be done about this. No one in the industry disagrees that this is a problem. However, many disagree on what to do about it.

I was on the phone with an accountant friend earlier this week who insisted that the startup ecosystem needed to get “over itself” and stop asking for “special treatment.” Her argument being that the current laws exist for a reason and that we should comply to them. I pointed out that laws change, and for good reason. It used to be legal to drive without a seatbelt. It used to be legal to own an unregistered rifle. Laws are meant to change as the population’s needs change.

Trying to solve the talent conundrum with the current immigration legislation is the equivalent of trying to land on the moon using a Volkswagen. In the case of the startup ecosystem, we are not so much asking for “special treatment” as we are for “special consideration.” That is, to be seen as a functioning industry with it’s own set of needs, rather than a subset of the IT sector.

Regarding the aforementioned immigration sponsorship problem, here are some suggestions on where to start:

Make it affordable.

Arguably the biggest obstacle for sponsorship is the financial risk. Sponsoring a candidate via the 3-step process can cost upwards of $1700, which is prohibitive for many new startups. This does not include immigration lawyers’ fees or legal advice. Taking such a financial burden on board is a huge ask for budding entrepreneurs, especially as the business might pivot out of the need for that specific role. A possible solution is to make the fees more accessible for new businesses and perhaps, even make them refundable to make the risk more palatable.

Realistic timelines. 

Time is the real currency in the startup world. We need new people to start yesterday. The second biggest frustration for startups that do sponsor are the lead times for processing applications. My last experience with a simple visa transfer, meaning that my current valid visa needed to be transferred to my next employer, was estimated to take up to 2 weeks. Instead, it took more than 3 months. In that time, we could not get any updates beyond “it’s in the queue.” I could not perform any work for the new employer or get paid in the meantime.

Three months is an eternity for a startup. I’ve seen new ventures dissolve in less time than that. A simpler application process and more flexible criteria designed specifically around startups could go a long way to speeding up these processing times.

Think in terms of growth, not in terms of roles. 

The 457 visa scheme is setup around specific roles that need to be filled. The reality we find in more startups is that most of us end up wearing more than one hat at a time. We want to secure greatly talented individuals who can grow with the business, not fill a prescribed role with a specific job description. I suggest shifting the focus from the role to the contribution the candidate brings to the table. Connections, industry knowledge, access to capital, introduction to new markets and languages….you name it. If we move away from the role-focused view, we can open the door to a more diverse, rich pool of young talent who are role-agnostic. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

A specialised innovation & technology list. 

If we insist on continuing to concentrate on the positions to be filled, the easiest solution is to have an industry-focused list. Currently, the tech sector is lumped in the ICT list of professions. Since there is no such thing as an innovation specialist, change manager for startups or talent professional on the ANZCO list, the closest match is ICT Account Manager. Under the immigration umbrella, I am the professional equivalent of someone who manages clients at Adobe or Cisco. Even though there are many overlaps with my day-to-day and theirs, like dealing with clients, managing accounts around technology products and being responsible for revenue growth, our skills and specialties are drastically different.

Additionally, my visa status is subject to the changes driven by that industry rather than just on those driven by the innovation industry. That also means that innovation specialists are competing for sponsorship allocation slots with corporate counterparts rather than with peers.

Again, I have it relatively easy. My role is a comparable equivalent of the corporate counterpart and is lawfully recognised under the 457 scheme. Change, growth and relationship management are very fluid skills. The bigger problem is when we start talking about more precise roles in a startup. Product owners, lean marketers, startup mentors and specialised developers are not properly represented on any of the visa lists.

Consult with people in the industry.

This comes back to the issue of diversity and representation. The current legislation is built around the needs of large corporations, with resources and money to spare. In order to empathise with the needs of the tech and innovation industry, the government should seek advice from the leaders in the field. We can turn to incubators, newly-funded ventures and bootstrapped entrepreneurs for starters. If they are tasked with leading national economic growth, they should at least be consulted on what their needs are!

The problems facing the tech industry are threads too long to unravel in one sitting. From parental leave to employee share schemes, we have a long way to go make this an ideal haven for startup employees. However, we can make get the balls rolling by creating a united front around the most pressing issues. I can’t imagine there is an MVP for immigration sponsorship policy, but if someone can find it, it’s us!