EMA chief executive Brett O'Riley says the skills shortage is now across multiple sectors, constraining growth across every region and the entire economy.

OPINION: The skills gap is now a skills chasm for New Zealand and there is no solution that does not include people crossing our borders and being able to isolate.

We are doing lasting damage to our businesses and impacting the wellbeing of their managers, workers and families.

Every day the Employers and Manufacturers Association deals with businesses of all sizes, and we see the strain on their faces and hear it in their voices, from not being able to find staff. Not addressing this is completely incongruous with a society that prioritises mental health outcomes, let alone wanting sustainable non-taxpayer-funded economic growth.

Let’s be clear. There has been a skills chasm in many sectors, like digital technology, for over a decade. It is well researched and documented. The chasm has limited expansion by successful businesses, resulting in jobs being offshored, and in many cases the businesses being eventually acquired and moved overseas permanently.

That skills chasm is now across multiple sectors, constraining growth across every region, and across the entire economy. We are getting feedback from our members that the skills gaps are across all sectors and at all skill levels, with 50 per cent of the people needed in low to medium-skilled positions, and 50 per cent highly skilled.

New Zealand businesses are committed to hiring locally and we have seen the enormous take-up of apprentices. But businesses also need experienced skilled workers who can lead, mentor and train others, manage critical processes and work under pressure.

The Government has signalled that the longer-term vision is to grow more talent here and build a more self-reliant labour market. The EMA wholeheartedly supports that goal.

But today, and for the foreseeable future, those skilled workers are simply not available in New Zealand, unless you poach them from your competitors. Immigration New Zealand has set a high bar to get them in from overseas, and if you do get approval there is little hope of finding an MIQ spot for the worker, let alone families.

New investors, global companies like Google relocating innovation centres, new Hollywood productions looking to film here, all are currently on hold because New Zealand is seen as closed to new opportunities.

Some action has been taken but it is nowhere near enough.

Compounding this issue, we have countries now saying that unless you have a confirmed Managed Isolation and Quarantine space for when you return home you can’t come in, which for example affects commissioning and maintenance teams going from New Zealand, and those workers who might routinely do stints overseas.

So, while we welcome moves to streamline the process for Essential Skills visas, and the (limited) capacity that has been added to MIQ, we simply need more practical and timely changes from Immigration, more MIQ spaces for business and a comprehensive plan for how to quickly up-skill our own people.

We also need, as a priority, to see what the new immigration reset plan looks like, and what the transition to that plan will look like.

We have called on the Government to announce a general amnesty for all Pacific Island overstayers, as part of the Dawn Raid apology. Let’s ensure everyone in our Pasifika communities who wants to work, or study can do so freely without worry. Let that set the tone for extending this to other communities in time.

We also need easier, more certain access to the migrant pool already here. Make it easier to transfer migrants into new roles and locations instead of having to reapply each time a role changes slightly.

Upgrade the MIQ booking system to better utilise capacity and consider options such as self-isolation or fewer MIQ days for those who are vaccinated.

Finally, we need more MIQ capacity immediately, we have been advocating for this since last year and the Australian bubble has not freed up the capacity as promised or hoped for.

Let’s significantly up the capacity now and give certainty to returning New Zealanders and skilled workers.

The private sector has been ready to step up with solutions for over 12 months. What is the hold-up? Or is this like saliva testing where it took the Ministry of Health nine months to confirm what global experts were already telling us: that the efficacy was as good as the more invasive tests, less costly and way more accessible.

This is not the business community whining, the regular refrain I get from the social media chorus whenever we dare to propose alternatives or criticise the border arrangements.

Actually, this is the business community being willing to be pro-active and invest in alternatives that can benefit New Zealand.

Last year we all talked about how our handling of Covid-19 was the new strategic advantage. Let’s not squander that opportunity by being narrow in our thinking.

More skilled workers equals more jobs, higher incomes and more prosperity. Or do we just go willingly deeper into the chasm?

Brett O’Riley is chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Assocation.

Brett O’Riley, Chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Assocation, stuff
August 3, 2021