A Plea from an Employer

Immigration New Zealand: Wake up and smell the coffee. Your policy towards our migrant workforce isn’t working. We’re struggling. You’re making it worse.

In our latest opinion piece, a frustrated business owner says: “If you want business to grow and this country to run well, stop throwing blocks in front of our wheels.”

This local manufacturer employs a highly skilled staff of half migrants and half locals. The skills required are highly trainable but also very manual: They require excellent hand-eye coordination and a commitment to working in an industrial environment. We sat down with the owner of the company to get his first-hand take on the problems he’s had trying to staff his growing business.

Q: What does your company do and how many migrant workers do you employ?

A: We employ around 50 migrant staff, many of whom have become intrinsic and are our most valued employees. They are our lifeblood, they are our family, and we look after them. After all, they’re part of our company. We don’t think of them as migrant. We just think of them as valuable employees.

Q: What sort of visa arrangements do these migrant workers have?

A: Mainly, they’re on work-to-residence visas or essential skills visas. Because we need continuity in our workplace, we don’t look for temporary visas. I want these people as long-term parts of my company.

Q: How difficult has it been to hire workers and what impact has it had on your company?

A: Over the years, we’ve proven that recruiting people with a) the right skill set and b) the right work ethic to make our product is extremely, extremely difficult. All our staff are offered training, but what we’ve traditionally found is that Kiwi staff lack the desire to train up into trades like this, and it’s an industry-wide issue.

Q: What steps have you taken to find or create qualified workers?

A: We communicated to our staff that we would put anyone who wanted to through the government’s BCITO apprenticeship scheme. The only people who applied were the work visa holders on our team. And that was put out to every single floor staff member.

We’ve gone down the route of getting certified as a WTR-accredited company, which we couldn’t have done without Aaron and the team at NZIL. That enabled us to attract a certain calibre of staff, which is key, and a number were migrant workers. But the process of getting accredited and getting those staff on board has been torturous, to say the least.

Q: What are some of the issues you’ve faced?

A: INZ is unable to understand the complexities of our trade. You can’t just take anybody off the street and train them to do a good job overnight. It takes years. To service a growing business, you can’t get staff like you want, when you want, in the local market. That’s why we employed offshore workers who already had the skills and could perform the work to the quality required by our customers.

But trying to employ these people and prove to immigration that we’ve given the opportunity to others has been a nightmare. The hoops they ask us to jump through just to prove that we are trying to employ people – both local and non-local – are, frankly, crazy. It’s beyond what’s reasonable and has taken up hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of my time, just trying to get them to understand that, hey, we do do our best.

We put our public adverts out, but when no one replies or the only replies you get are skilled migrants, what option do we have but to employ them? We import, export, and manufacture for the local market, so everything we do adds to the government’s returns in terms of taxation. Yet we constantly have to explain ourselves: why we’re employing good staff, paying them above-average wages, and looking after them to keep growing our company. Why do we have to justify ourselves and get sticks stuck in our spokes every time we try to grow? We’ll probably need another 10 to 15 staff in the next two years and, frankly, I’m sat here metaphorically chewing my pencil. I don’t know how and where I’m going to find those staff if I can’t recruit from the international labour market.

 Q: Employers of migrant workers must have training programmes in place to upskill locals. How feasible is that? How many years of on-the-job experience would someone need to become a capable tradesperson equal to your skilled migrant worker?

 A: Two to three.

Q: Have you tried advertising publicly to offer training to entry-level employees? As in: “Within three years, you could be qualified”?

A: No. We’re a young, growing company. We need people with some level of experience because it speeds up our production.

What the government is saying is, “We don’t want to train them. Why don’t you?” But there’s no incentive to get locals into training, or there’s no desire. There seems to be no appetite for people to actually train up.

The other thing is, there’s not enough margin in the market to go and employ 10 apprentices. We need output, so trying to start our own apprenticeship scheme is kind of nuts. We’re not sat here on a big, fat wad of cash saying, “Yep, we can help. Let’s train up 10 people who might not actually produce output” – which is what it’s all about in a manufacturing business –
“for the first two years.”

 To be honest, it feels like the government’s turned around and said, “We’ve got an unskilled workforce that’s very unproductive. Hey, by the way, why don’t we just make it their employer’s problem to sort?” New Zealand is the most unproductive westernised country in the world per capita. That’s a very well-known fact.

Q: We’ve heard that some companies completed all the requirements INZ asked for but still received pushback on their application. What has your experience been like?

A: Well, we’d done everything right, but the pushback almost felt like Immigration had a quota, that if you had over a certain percentage of migrant workers, they were like, “We’re going to make it difficult for you.” Some of the questions that came back were absolutely bewildering. I wasn’t even sure why they were asking them. One of them was, “How many migrant workers do you intend to employ in the next two to four years?” Well, how the heck would I know? How am I supposed to answer that question?

In the end I said, “We’ll put the adverts out, but we can only work with those who apply. If that means for 10 staff we employ all migrant workers, that’s what we’ll do. If only Kiwi staff apply, that’s what we’ll employ. But we can’t dictate who’s going to apply for a position we advertise. When I put it out, I get applications and I go, Well, OK, who can I interview? And you go through all the processes based on skills and experience, then you short list and you get 10 apps of the 50 who applied.

Another question was, “How can you prove that the people you interview are going to be in this country?” And I’ve just said, “Well, you’ve closed the borders. I don’t know how we’re supposed to interview people who are not in this country.” There’s no common sense applied to the actual line of questioning.

Q: How much is INZ’s approach going to grow the productivity of New Zealand, from your point of view?

A: Well, it’s going to send it backwards. Their mentality is purely idealistic. The reality is that a certain percentage of the potential workforce in any given country doesn’t want to work. That’s humanity, and I don’t know how they’re going to change the DNA of the human race to change that. They’re trying to force increased productivity without turning to a migrant labour pool. Well, there just aren’t enough people to deliver that productivity, so they’re asking for something that is actually, practically, impossible.

It looks good on paper. I get the mentality. But nobody looked at it and said, “Yes, we would like to do X, but is it possible?” Nobody looked at the strategy and execution. They’ve just gone, “Here is the ideal, here is the airy-fairy idea.” I wholeheartedly agree that every Kiwi needs to be gainfully employed, but my point is, there’s absolutely no chance I can service my growing business with the existing employment pools unless I can accept migrant workers into my business.

Q: What impact has INZ’s policy had on your own productivity? What about all the delays to rolling out the new accreditation scheme?

A: The delays have caused carnage. The whole thing has diverted me from trying to grow the business and grow the GDP of New Zealand. Instead of focussing on my people and my business, I’m focussing on how to answer government questions.

And the changing goalposts, too, have just been a nightmare. They create uncertainty, both within our management team, who are trying to execute on a strategy, and then in my migrant worker team, who don’t know whether they’re coming or going or about to get chopped.

Or they can’t get family here. One key worker has tried upwards of nine times to get his wife and son across the border but has been refused. He’s got one-in-a-million skills but they won’t recognise that, so he’s been separated from his wife and kids for 18 months now. It’s just mental; I don’t get it. There’s no pragmatism being applied. It’s just theory and checkboxes.

Q: Is there any message you’d like to share with employers who haven’t yet started their accreditation application?

A: Get your skates on quick, because it’s long and it’s torturous and you need a professional. To make a shameless plug for Aaron, you need professionals like NZIL to actually get you through it, because it’s that full of pitfalls. I couldn’t have done it myself.

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