Startups and immigration: The fuzzy end of the lollipop

- June 20, 2014 5 MIN READ

The most recent policy announcements have blown a cold wind up the spine of the tech industry. The new budget was met with a collective side-eye from the startup ecosystem, from founders to investors alike. Ever since, we have had a litany of complaints about the new budget, its proposals and the knuckle-headedness of its proponents. We get it: the tail is wagging the dog. Tony Abbott has been infamously traveling the world touting the future of railroads like it’s 1979, forgetting that this country was comfortably settled into the millennium before he stomped in, knocked it in the head and tried dragging it back into the cave.

What really makes my blood boil is that, even with the kicks and screams from the general public, this government seems to be in deep denial to what our economy needs and what growth actually means. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current talent vacuum.

The Skills Shortage Report put out by the government is an exercise in naiveté and self-congratulatory bullshit. You can find IT, technology and innovation are thrown into the same pile, making infrastructure professionals indistinguishable from innovation specialists. According to the list, “…[roles for ICT Professionals] were the easiest professional vacancies to fill…” We can simply turn to any online forum or talent board, or just to the person sitting next to us, to confirm that this is not true.

The absurd talent paradox in Australia is a Gordian Knot with no obvious end or logical solution. All we hear about is how hard it is for businesses to compete for talent, hire good people and retain them as they grow. The whole industry is complaining about the talent migration to greener pastures overseas and into the corporate world.

The fact is that the local startup industry is on the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it comes to policy-making. As long as politicians continue to look past technology and innovation as a source of growth and as long as policy continues to be lead by the popular vote, we will be stuck in reverse.

Our biggest issue is that our ecosystem is not represented fairly in government; we aren’t perceived as a big enough force to make any constructive change. Hence, the government continues to clench onto archaic laws tailor-made for corporations and commodity businesses.

The problem is not really how the government chooses to see our industry but the fact that these limited worldviews inform policy and laws. The most worrisome, for me at least, is the current labyrinth that is sponsored immigration for startups in Australia.

Immigration policy has become one of the biggest blockers when it comes to acquiring talent in Australia. It is expensive, difficult, time-consuming and emotionally exhausting – for both the employee and the employer. It reflects the needs of giant corporations with resources, money and lawyers to take them through the process and come out unscathed. However, the startup industry cannot afford any of those luxuries, especially the gargantuan task of document creation and collation necessary to get approved as a sponsor. So, as with most things in life, the ones who need it the most are the ones who are left out.

In the last five years alone, I have gone through the process of sponsorship twice already. I’m about to embark in another one as I change roles in the new financial year. Although all my experiences have ultimately been successful, the journey for each one has been excruciatingly stressful, ridden with anxiety and high costs and all kinds of risk. At this point, I could go through the process in my sleep, having done it some many times for myself and for staff for both startups and corporates. But somehow, it only gets harder.

My situation is the perfect example of how broken the system is. Next month marks my 10-year anniversary of living in Australia, yet I am not a permanent resident. Although I have managed to get sponsored by amazing companies and remain here lawfully, the road did not need to be this difficult.

The precarious nature of startups and incubators don’t afford the stability that is required for the current immigration policy. The cost alone is deterrent enough. The vague timelines, endless document lists and ambiguous advice doesn’t help either. But the nightmare doesn’t stop there. Once you are sponsored, holding onto a startup job for the minimum two years required before you can apply for a permanent residency is nearly impossible.

Also, both the employer and employee are subject to insurmountably high fees, in the thousands of dollars, which neither can comfortably afford as part of a startup. Pivoting revenue models, failed rounds of funding, the rapid changes in the business are staples in the innovation industry. However, they run contrary to requirements for talent sponsorship in Australia. The system is failing all of us.

Choosing to join the startup community has been the biggest risk I have ever taken. Though it has proven to be the right decision for my sanity and my career ascension, the financial and emotional cost of the immigration process has been a little piece of hell. After ten years, I should have more to show for it.

Regardless, I am already here and have worked hard to have a track record that affords me some security when it comes to locking in new opportunities and minimising the risk of sponsorship for any future employer. I have been through the process and have the requirements to continue to be lawfully sponsored in the future. Relatively speaking, I have it easy. The real issue is the recruitment of new talent under the current conditions.

That’s a completely different fuzzy end to explore. A very good friend of mine is finishing her MBA at Macquarie University. She is a high-in-demand marketing executive with a regional role in Latin America. She wasn’t planning on staying here after her degree was completed. However, the warmth of the country and the excitement of the startup scene, which I have been busy introducing her to, took to her. So she and her partner decided to stay for a couple of years and join our ecosystem. Hurray! Just what we needed: fresh, eager talent to inject growth and diversity into our innovation shores. What could go wrong?

The job search started rather enthusiastically but it quickly came to a halt. After countless online applications, meetings with recruiters and introductions at industry events,  she was faced time and again with the caveat of “our company doesn’t sponsor.”

Let’s forget the giant overstatement in that sentence, which already has a tooth-fairy quality to its narrative, but let’s concentrate on the message it’s trying to send. The logic here defies gravity: Even though a company has such a hard time finding talent within their network that it had to outsource to a recruitment agency, said “clients” just outright refuse to consider sponsoring immigrant talent. Is that discrimination or just plain stupid? It sounds like a little of Column A, and a little of Column B.

Needless to say, she is heading back home to Lima after she is finished with her studies, taking with her all her skills, knowledge, connections and innovation potential. She will be returning triumphantly to job security in Latin America, where the economies are booming, and will return to a local corporate job rather than taking a chance in our precarious startup ecosystem. Who is the winner here?

After all the whinging and whining about the shortage of talent in this country, our government cannot get on board with the needs of the tech and innovation industry. The example above is one of tens of thousands of immensely talented individuals who are slipping through our industry’s grasp – and our policies’ cracks. We are turning people away at the door because our government cannot distinguish between what we need and what is popular. What are we prepared to do about it?