BIG ISSUES : Priming the talent pump – Is immigration up to it?

The migrant taxi-driver with multiple degrees has become something of an Auckland cliché but with unemployment at all-time lows and global competition for skills strengthening, New Zealand’s ability both to attract and make best use of migrant talent has become increasingly vital.
That means our immigration policies must ease the path of those migrants whose talents we need without opening the door so wide that our social infrastructure is overwhelmed by those who can’t immediately contribute.
In just over year, if Immigration Minister David Cunliffe has his way, New Zealand might just have an immigration system that fits the bill. In perfect world, one that Cunliffe and most employers aspire to, reactive paper-shuffling, queuing, and bureaucratic delays would be replaced by the streamlined targeting of quality migrants and prompt and efficient decision process.
The process of dealing with asylum seekers is also in for shake-up. New Zealand’s commitments to United Nations’ conventions on refugees and torture will remain, but the focus of the immigration debate would shift dramatically.
In fact, if you talk to employers, it already has. While radio talkback callers prattle on about the merits or otherwise of Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui’s presence in New Zealand, business and public service managers are looking desperately for the system to provide them with skilled staff.
Their wish-list is huge: it covers everything from IT specialists, builders, plumbers, fruit-pickers and farm workers to GPs, paramedics, accountants, lawyers and engineers. In an economy with close to full employment, where some of the brightest Kiwis have been wooed to lucrative jobs overseas, 24,000 non-New Zealand migrants on average are needed each year for the country just to tread water.
In the 2006 calendar year, New Zealand attracted some 82,732 permanent and long-term migrants (see box story “Ebbs and flows”), giving it net migrant gain of 14,609. But without foreigners making up the numbers, the country would have suffered net loss of 23,598. The impact on the economy of shrinking population and talent pool would be huge.
Not surprisingly, most employers argue that New Zealand needs more non-New Zealand migrants if the economy is to continue to prosper. Many recruiters already source large proportion of their candidates from overseas (see box story “Why we need immigrants”). Some also say there should be incentives, such as low personal tax rates, to entice Kiwis to return.
The problem at present is that the system is not well geared to the fast-changing needs of business – although some improvements have been made in the past few years. In 2002, the New Zealand Immigration Service introduced its ‘talent visa’ allowing accredited employers to more quickly access the talent they need for high-level jobs. Immigrants who are ‘sponsored’ in such way get multiple entry visas and can be eligible for residency within two years – as long as they stick with an accredited employee.
But there are still frustrations with current immigration practices – particularly when it comes to processing work permits.
A “New Kiwis Employer Survey” conducted by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce late last year highlighted some of these. Answers from the nearly 500 respondents to queries about obstacles related overwhelmingly to language/communication and immigration/visa issues. The “time taken to issue work visas” was typical complaint – and not “having to fight with Immigration again” was seen as something that would make it easier for employers to hire new migrants in future. Other obstacles included checking and assessing overseas skills, cultural fit and understanding of the Kiwi business culture.
Incidentally, the survey also highlighted the benefits of migrant workers – employers reported that 81 percent had proved average or above average performers with 63 percent in the very good or excellent category. Just 4.9 percent voiced dissatisfaction.
While measures such as the ‘talent visa’ are welcomed by business, they’ve also added new layers of complexity to the 1987 Immigration Act – which is why it’s up for an overhaul. The perception is that our public policy on immigration is conflicting and confused and in many ways this reflects the conflicts and confusions among the broader public.
Immigrants, whatever their status, for years have had to walk the tightrope of public opinion when they first set foot in New Zealand. Once settled, they were generally accepted. But that is perhaps less so now when many of the new arrivals, whatever the demand might be for their skills, are non-Caucasian and culturally and linguistically distinct. The terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 have simply reinforced the latent xenophobia long present in New Zealand.
However, there’s no slowing in the flow of New Zealanders to live and work overseas. According to David Cunliffe, expatriate Kiwis comprise 14 percent of the population (more than 580,000 people) – one of the largest diasporas per capita in the world. To many ordinary New Zealand families, being part of global economy is more about mobility of labour than the free flow of foreign capital into the country.
Of the 580,000 or so expats, half will return home at some point, quarter are undecided and the balance have gone for good. That leaves big hole to fill in terms of our labour market.
Cunliffe says his aim is to depoliticise immigration legislation, policy and practice to allow the economy to grow while improving border security.
“Rather than being reactive, we have to be responsive to the needs of the economy … We are facing up to the increased [labour] mobility around the globe.
“The West has an aging population and there is much more competition for the migrants we need.”
Cunliffe accepts that “population diversity” (ie, non-white immigration) needs to be thought about carefully.
Most employers have few qualms about employing people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. If the views of business lobby groups are anything to go by, they’re much more concerned with maintaining competitive, sustainable and skilled workforce.
Back in 1997, Business Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr remarked that New Zealand had been enriched immeasurably by the experience, resources and trading contacts migrants had brought.
“Throughout history,” Kerr said in speech then, “immigrants have brought important skills. Attitudes and cultural enrichment to the countries in which they have settled … Provided policies are sound, one research study after another has found that the overall benefits from immigration are unambiguously positive.”
A decade later, nothing has changed his view, though the international situation after September 11, 2001 has worsened.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce and EMA (Northern), Auckland’s main business groups, have long been aware that the region’s burgeoning economy – some 32 percent of the population accounting for about 40 percent of national wealth – is dependent on maintaining dynamic workforce.
Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett’s catchcry is that Auckland should be an “attractive place to do business while staying globally connected”. The “global connection” is as much to do with labour as capital or technology.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that no fewer than six of the 31 recommendations in the Metro Project action plan released late last year – the business plan for the region’s development – referred specifically to skills-building and enhancement, the areas where migrants make their greatest contribution.
Some 40 percent of migrants settle in Auckland and while the region’s employers have found it difficult to find labour, skilled and unskilled, for the past five years or so, unemployment among migrant groups tops 10 percent. This suggests that non-targeted migration – particularly people arriving as refugees or as part of family reunifications (often with little or no

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