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Immigration Policy Review Won’t Address Bigger Picture

By Brett O'Riley, EMA Chief Executive

The Productivity Commission’s call for a revised immigration policy to better meet the skills demand in New Zealand provides the prompt for a much bigger piece of work about a population strategy.

Clearly many of the issues the country faces are because we have been unable to accommodate recent rapid population growth, creating issues for infrastructure, housing, education and our health systems.

The Commission’s ‘Frontier Firms’ report highlights once again ongoing challenges Kiwi businesses have in finding the skills they need to improve productivity and grow their business, but revising immigration policy is not the key answer.

We made the call pre-election for the debate to be widened into a full discussion about and development of a population strategy that is critical to many parts of the economy and New Zealand life.

We need to decide how big we want our country to be as that is what drives infrastructure, housing and health policy, and in turn means thinking about what skills we want in our population as these will determine our skills mix for immigrants, as well as our education system. Migrant communities have long made a positive impact in diversifying our population and in many cases have brought business and cultural connections with them.

Along with the size of our population we also need to discuss population distribution. This is both in terms of available and suitable land for expansion, and also taking into account our geological risk factors. I have long felt it was important for both Christchurch and Auckland to be international gateway and business cities, with Government policy settings to achieve this.

There is definitely an issue between the people and their skills that our businesses need and want, and the reliance on immigrants to make up for the lack of qualified local people. We saw this exacerbated by the border closures brought about by COVID-19, with significant shortages in sectors like health, particularly nurses, and in construction, with professions like design, engineering and project management.

But as the Government develops its new immigration policy and reopens borders it should take the opportunity to have this much bigger discussion.

From what our business members tell us we know there is a mismatch between immigration policy and skills, just as there is in the education system, where we do not seem to have worked out the right balance between university and vocational training. Employers are also critical of the work readiness and life skills of many of our young people.

Training, education, skills and immigration are a critical policy mix for New Zealand as we have a rapidly aging workforce (in the top three aging populations in the world). This is exacerbated by our declining birth rate, which is now well below what is required to replenish our working population. So the time for action is now, and the business community is up for the challenge.

A population strategy is a critical discussion for our future. It will impact every aspect of our standard of living and in my opinion sits alongside climate change as one of the key public policy areas where we need bi-partisan agreement.

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