Technology future looking bright for Geelong

As Geelong digested news of yet another tranche of blue-collar jobs losses, local technology firms say the area is quietly turning itself into a modest high-tech hub.

As Geelong digested news of yet another tranche of blue-collar jobs losses, local technology firms say the area is quietly turning itself into a modest high-tech hub. Sylvia Pennington reports.

Last week's announcement that Ford is closing its engine factory in Geelong in 2016 followed the news in April that Shell's oil refinery in the city was slated for closure.

The two operations employ 510 and 600 staff respectively.

Alcoa's Point Henry aluminium smelter, which employs 500 people, also faces an uncertain future, as the company looks to cut production after heavy losses.

While heavy industry declines, technology businesses in the region continue to pick up steam.

Geelong-based developer Sky Software has grown from 12 to 40 staff in the past two years. It exports student management software to private education providers in six countries.

Sky Software chairman Clive Mayhew, a veteran of the Australian IT sector, says being regionally based has enabled the company to expand rapidly while keeping its costs low.

Software developers are paid about 40 per cent less than their counterparts in Sydney and Melbourne; a differential they're happy to accept in exchange for the benefits of a low-cost, small-city life.

Project managers and experienced developers command about $100,000 and $70,000 respectively, according to Mr Mayhew; good rates for a small city where professional work is thin on the ground.

"The price difference for us is quite substantial ... it's a great base to get the best people," he said, adding local workers' attitudes are positive. "We've found that as a place to grow from 12 to 40 staff, Geelong has been fantastic.

"We'll never be a Silicon Valley, but in a small community there's a lot of opportunity for those people to go forward."

Sky experimented briefly with off-shoring development work to India but changed its mind after realising local staff could do a better job for just 25 per cent more, Mr Mayhew said.

While job-hopping is the modus operandi for many IT workers, getting Geelong staff to stick around is a non-issue, adds Peter Langkamp, who runs Callista Software Services, another developer of student management software.

Owned by Deakin University, Callista has a 30 per cent share of the university market in Australia and supplies 13 institutions.

The organisation employs 100 people, who leave at the rate of 2 per cent a year. Some developers are Deakin alumni who have been there for a decade.

"We don't do turnover," Mr Langkamp said. "People want to live in the area and are very loyal."

City of Greater Geelong Council has established ICT Geelong, a forum for local firms, tertiary institutions and the public sector to encourage more firms to hang up a shingle.

Deakin ICT graduate and founder of the healthcare systems developer Alivate, Todd Hubers, says the city's proximity to the university makes it an attractive place to locate a start-up.

Mr Hubers used surplus office space to open a work hub in central Geelong last year. It now houses six ventures.

The founder of ISP software developer DuxTel, Mike Everest, set up shop in 2006 and now employs four staff. He says bandwidth is the biggest impediment for new players.

The NBN rollout is due to begin in Geelong in September.

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