1493252900553 - Having access to workers with the right skills is essential for business

Having access to workers with the right skills is essential for business

OPINION: In the next week or so we should know how popular the latest scheme to attract people with special skills to Wellington has been. That’s when sorting begins on applications for the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. 

It’s a programme that offers 100 foreign innovators a platform to incubate global impact ventures and contribute to our innovation scene. At last count it had received 500 expressions of interest from 87 countries.  

Three weeks later, 100 successful applicants arrive on ratepayer-funded air tickets as part of Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency’s LookSee scheme, which matches overseas IT professionals with employers. It attracted more than 48,000 applicants. 

These are examples of the drive to fill jobs and boost the knowledge base that we can’t from our resources alone.

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Though Wellington is producing more graduates with IT and other skills than ever, it takes time to create the experience our fast-growing companies need.

The Wellington ICT Graduate School is up and running and set to produce the most graduates of any centre in New Zealand this year – just over 50 – and many already have internships and placements. The need is greater than the supply.

It’s the same with skills across other industries.  

When the Government said it was stiffening immigration criteria, some said businesses could fail, dairying in the South Island would collapse, and the Christchurch re-build could grind to a halt if it went further.

Though that’s a little over the top, it does indicate how much our economy relies on immigration.

The other side of the argument says the record number of migrants is why there is huge pressure on housing and infrastructure, and why wages for unskilled workers remain low. 

The latest statistics show that in the March year, 71,900 more people arrived than left.

Of the arrivals, 31,995 were Kiwis, 6124 were Australians, 23,900 were on student visas, 16,800 were residence visas, and 43,700 were work visas. 

It seems a lot, but if we’re letting too many in, where would we make the cuts that many want (but won’t specify)?

We can’t stop the Kiwis and Aussies. We could turn off student visas, but in 2015/16 they brought in $4 billion (our 4th biggest export earner) and supported 32,000 jobs. So that can’t happen. 

That leaves residence visas and work visas.

Residence visas are not the easy pickings some believe. They are designed to entice entrepreneurs, investors, and those with special talents, and to retain those on the long-term skill shortage list.

Some are part of the Samoan quota, while others are dependents of people we need to keep. 

That leaves work visas.

New Zealand has had a skills shortage in various sectors for decades. Some of it’s because our education system, for whatever reason, hasn’t produced enough people with the right skills or the right attitude. Some is because people won’t move to where the jobs are.

We certainly have enough people: more than 60,000 between 15 and 25 years old are unemployed, and a further 38,000 under 40. All the while, vacancies continue to rise, and Wellington businesses tell us it’s harder to find good staff.

As long as we are short of workers with the right skills then we have no option but to look to immigrants and rely on schemes like the Edmund Hillary Fellowship and LookSee. 

We need to keep a close eye on immigration numbers, but we need to keep in mind the skills the economy needs. It’s a matter of getting the balance right because we can’t afford for our businesses to have uncertainty around access to skills. 

Being able to hire someone who can walk in and start immediately is essential for business to maintain momentum, and that’s good for the economy.

John Milford is the chief executive of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce