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Skills Shortage is Solvable

6 August 2004

Skills Shortage is Solvable

The solution to New Zealand’s skill shortage involves a combination of targeted training and a change of attitude and practice by business and Government.

Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, said Government, industry and immigration leaders should stop blaming each other for the shortage and instead look at what role they can play in providing a solution.

He suggested a four-pronged strategy to overcome our skills shortage, which he believed would get both quick results and bring long-lasting benefits:

Firstly, businesses, especially small-medium need a culture change to include training as an integral part of growing their business.

“We are a nation of small-medium enterprises (SMEs) where 95% of businesses employ fewer than 20 people and who tend to operate in the ‘here and now.’

Instead of planning future staff needs and developing a programme of staff recruitment and training, when an SME needs a new skill they tend to look around the market for someone with the required experience and offer them a better salary package.

Secondly, the relationship between business, education and training providers, immigration consultants and Government funders needs to be greatly improved.

Currently there is a series of mis-matches and lack of co-ordination between the types of skills that industry needs, the skills emerging from training and education providers and the types of immigrants coming to New Zealand.

“We need a co-ordinated industry training group that includes representatives of all the key players and adopts a solution-based approach.

“Clearly we need a greater pool of construction skills, so where is the co-ordinated strategy to train up New Zealanders to take guaranteed jobs and assess whether we also need to inject some targeted immigration recruitment of experienced construction skills?”

Third, Government needs to provide an environment of sustained certainty to business, and get New Zealand away from running the economy under policies that keep changing and create boom-bust economic cycles.

“Every time there is a slow down in programmes to build needed infrastructure, or policy changes that slows the economy, we lose a layer of skilled people offshore.

“Look at Sydney at the moment. Major public and private sector construction programmes are ploughing ahead using highly trained and skilled New Zealanders, most of whom have gone to live in Australia during one of our economic downturns.”

For the last 20 years, the New Zealand bureaucracy has been slow off the mark to support investment in new infrastructure and major construction programmes.

“Suddenly when we have turned the tap back on to fund a backlog of construction, there should be no surprise that the skills needed to deliver the projects have gone elsewhere.”

Fourth, targeted immigration of skilled workers tagged to specific projects would enable the New Zealand workforce to learn and get leverage from.

“In the 1950s and sixties, successive governments recruited teams of skilled workers from offshore for major public sector construction of hydro power stations, and many businesses recruited semi-skilled workers from offshore who were trained on the job. The strategy worked then, it can again.

“If we are going to follow Australia and other countries into public private partnerships (PPPs) for major construction projects, then we should keep open the option for contracting consortium that will do the projects with packaged skills recruited offshore.

“Sydney currently has a team of 80 Kiwi construction workers on the cross harbour tunnel project. Why not encourage a project to do a PPP that includes a provision to entice skilled Kiwis now offshore back to New Zealand?”

He believed many skilled Kiwis working offshore would be encouraged to return if the certainty of sustained work was available – only Government can deliver that kind of certainty.


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