SUSTAINABILITY : Enticing Ideas

The business I manage currently has over 100 vacancies. An engineering consultancy with 1800 staff across Australasia, Asia and beyond, Beca and its competitors are struggling to find and keep talented pool of human capital. It is problem shared by thousands of New Zealand companies and major issue for our country. We need solutions so that New Zealand can boost its productivity, efficiency and exports.
Recently, at New Zealand’s first Business Budget Summit I introduced the issue of creating and retaining skilled people. Organised by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development and CPA Australia, and hosted by the Minister of Finance, the summit brought together nearly 100 senior executives and observers to look at longer term solutions, starting, we hope, with some measures in the next Budget.
Beca is large New Zealand firm which derives over third of its income overseas. Where we differ from other large businesses is that we are employee owned. Our people have real stake in the outcome of the business and real ability to influence that outcome. We also run an inhouse subsidised pension plan which is highly valued by our staff – and an example to Government of the benefits of compulsory super scheme with appropriate tax concessions. While our employee-ownership and pension plan help retain senior staff, Beca is still experiencing the constraints of the labour market.
The global demand on human capital forces us to act assertively to get our share. We need, first and foremost, to train New Zealanders to create sufficient pool of technicians, scientists, engineers and other people with skills critical to lifting our nation’s productivity. Through education, we can equip our country with the skills to grow and compete globally. Let’s challenge our education system to achieve this. Let’s encourage the competitive spirit.
Our challenge is not only to train New Zealanders but to retain them and reclaim them from overseas. Beca employs and trains over 70 graduates year who are then sought after across the globe. To pre-empt this, it sends some of its best people to work with strategic international allies. It also tracks its overseas alumni to reclaim them. But we need Government to work with us in enticing them back.
Encouraging our mature workers to continue contributing to our economy to forestall the impending retirement crunch makes good sense. Beca retains many of its employees beyond their notional retirement age. How can we as country further encourage this? I suggest that the Government could invest in further research and promotion of incentives for people to remain at work. And, of course, all businesses can respect and encourage their aging workforce to remain on board.
In addition to home-grown talent, there is clearly role for immigration to contribute to the national skill pool. But immigration is another source of frustration. We all too often get into taxis driven by highly skilled recent immigrants. This is tragedy of human capital and reveals the problem we have with underemployment of new migrants.
A national online special pre-summit poll conducted by the Business Council, using its ShapeNZ panel (results at www.shapenz.org.nz), shows 74 percent of business people agree that employers need to accept greater diversity: employing people from different ethnic backgrounds to overcome skills shortages. That said, Government also needs to correspondingly facilitate immigration.
At the summit, I also focused on infrastructure, which I believe will heavily influence how easily we can improve productivity. Infrastructure development needs to keep pace with our growth as nation and as player in the international market.
Government needs to devise national plan for infrastructure development. It should be clear, certain and with long-term outlook, so that those involved in planning, investing in and undertaking infrastructure projects know where they stand, as do those who will be influenced by those projects. We cannot, for example, retain human resources for projects that are incessantly “on-again/off-again”.
This plan could entail selecting list of projects of national priority or defining the criteria for selection as to which jobs should be accelerated.
Some 85 percent of business people in the ShapeNZ poll agreed to developing national priority list and 68 percent will back change to speed the consent process for these projects.
We also need greater focus on public private partnerships (PPPs) in delivering infrastructure, to allow both the public and private sectors to contribute to their full potential.
Among its many conclusions the summit recommended the Government change the law to remove tax disincentives which stop us attracting talent from offshore, and agreed PPPs are not only about dollars but also partnering for innovation.
If the summit has worked, the proof will be measured in the number of official policy working papers getting underway ahead of next year’s Budget to explore turning this advice into policy.
Business leaders now have mandate from their peers to play their part in attracting and keeping talent. They should also join the push for policies that get the skills and infrastructural leg irons off both business and country.

Richard Aitken is CEO of Beca.

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