BACKUP Embracing Diversity

Matching people skills to employment gaps has always been something of juggling act in New Zealand.

Seems every new school year kicks off with media panic about teacher shortages and every fruit-picking season with orchardists’ laments about the labour lack. Meanwhile there’s perennial shortage of health professionals; we’re producing too many lawyers and not enough scientists; the building industry is lacking both skilled and unskilled staff: South Island firms are scratching for skills of all kinds; and our top managerial talent is apparently going AWOL.

This year brought an 18-year high in the overall number of firms (21 percent) reporting difficulty in finding skilled staff – for 14 percent of businesses, that shortage represented the main constraint on expansion.

The problem with removing such constraints to growth is that supply generally lags well behind demand. By the time tertiary/training institutions respond to current skills shortages, they may well have moved elsewhere.

Extra primary school teachers hit the market just as the population bulge that precipitated their shortage moves on to secondary schools. fresh batch of qualified carpenters emerges in time to find the building boom they were trained to supply has come to an end.

The more highly skilled the job, the greater the potential lag between employment need and talent supply.

Then, of course, there’s immigration.

If you can’t grow enough of your own in time, you can always import skills to meet the market demand. But that’s not as simple as it sounds.

The needed skills tend to come bundled with different cultural attributes and New Zealand businesses haven’t always proved up to the task of assimilating those differences.

Two years ago, when I wrote an article in the NZ Herald about increasingly widespread skill shortages, I got flood of email responses from skilled people who weren’t getting to first job base because they lacked “New Zealand experience”.

For new arrivals, it’s real Catch 22 filter. If you don’t already have it, you can’t get it. It meant those with funny accents or hard-to-pronounce names didn’t even make it to an employer’s shortlist.

Happily things have improved bit since then – helped by such initiatives as the Auckland Chamber of Commerce’s “New Kiwis” programme. But for many the Catch 22 remains – which raises some issues around the recent changes to this country’s immigration rules.

These will see the current points system ditched in favour of more discretionary “invitation-only” approach. If they meet relevant language, health, character, and skills needs, migrants will get shoulder-tapped by immigration with an invitation to apply for residency. If they have job to go to – especially if it’s out of Auckland – they get fast tracked.

Although the changes have sent several thousand would-be migrants back to square one, the new rules have largely been welcomed by business as being more targeted approach to filling skill gaps.

There’s been lot of talk about how we don’t want to see skilled migrants driving taxis or cooking hamburgers. And yes, it’s daft if even one nuclear physicist ends up behind the steering wheel of taxi because nobody bothered to tell them there isn’t big demand for those skills here.

But such skill/job mismatching can’t all be blamed on immigration policies – nor will they alone provide some kind of panacea.

Get enough exposure to talkback radio and you realise that not everyone welcomes the idea of more culturally diverse population in New Zealand. Others are concerned that migrants could hog jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed locals whose skill sets have fallen behind rapidly changing job market.

Okay, the first are in serious need of mind stretching. The latter do have point in that immigration should not be used as substitute for timely investment in training. Businesses need to ensure their existing workforce doesn’t get left behind by changes in processes or technology that demand new skills sets.

That said, we still need workplaces that are open to welcoming talent from diverse sources, and open-minded as to what potential job candidate looks and sounds like.

There are inevitably some challenges around language, customs, or work culture when it comes to absorbing people from different ethnic origins into the workplace. People may arrive here speaking very good English but that doesn’t prepare them for Kiwi colloquialisms or local humour.

This can affect performance at interview as well as on the job – and, according to Auckland Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett, such hurdles tend to be bigger in smaller scale firms. Which makes you wonder whether dispatching new migrants to smaller New Zealand communities is the best tactic.

And if the Government chooses to fast-track mainly those migrants with skills in industry sectors designated as having high growth potential – such as biotech – how will that help fill shortages in more mundane manufacturing and service sectors?

Ongoing close liaison between business, training providers and immigration is must if the new rules are to achieve much better match between job needs and people skills – so is the creation of workplace environments that embrace diversity.

Vicki Jayne is Management’s associate editor.

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