Record migration not enough for industries

9:19 pm on 21 March 2016

Firms are still crying out for skilled workers despite the surge in foreigners coming to New Zealand to live and work.

Christchurch Construction.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Official figures show a record 67,400 permanent and long-term migrants settled here in the year to February, due to more arrivals and fewer departures.

Immigration also hit fresh highs as a fast-growing economy attracted returning New Zealanders and Britons on working holidays and high numbers of students from India and China.

Infometrics chief forecaster Gareth Kiernan said the number of foreigners on work visas had risen 18 percent for the three months to February compared to a year earlier, reflecting the strong economy and skill shortages.

"We've had a lot of mixed data about the labour market in the last 12 to 18 months, but certainly the most recent figures suggest that it's a bit tighter than we previously thought.

"So, getting those workers in from overseas to help meet some of those shortages is good in terms of keeping the economy going."

However, Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) Northern chief executive Kim Campbell said more foreign workers were needed, especially those with computer-related, engineering and finance skills and experience.

"Our members are still complaining about getting the right skills at the right time. In spite of all the migration there is still a shortage in certain areas."

That also included builders. About four in 10 arrivals from overseas settled in Auckland, which in turn put the squeeze on the city's already under-pressure housing market.

Barfoot & Thompson director Peter Thompson said that although consents were rising in response, more chippies, sparkies and plumbers were needed.

"The number of builders coming from overseas has been significant but trying to get a builder just to do a small job on your own house these days is still very difficult. So, a shortage of good labour supply in the building trade is an issue."

So, is New Zealand getting the right immigrants?

Labour hire firm AWF Madison recruits from overseas to fill gaps, and chief executive Simon Bennett was loath to blame the government.

He said it was difficult to get the balance right between what firms needed now, and building and enhancing the country's productive workforce in the long term.

"There's a little bit of work to be done between Immigration New Zealand and employers to say we would like these skills sets plus these are the types of people we would like to have settle in New Zealand so we can end up with the balance of people that will stay and come and help again and again, or add to this labour pool rather than just going away again."

New Zealand was competing with other nations for people with the same skills, Mr Bennett said.

He said more could be done to tell New Zealand students that previously derided jobs, such as forklift driver and road construction, could be well paid and lead to good careers.

EMA's Mr Campbell said the government was considering fine-tuning the criteria for immigrants to make it more responsive to employers' needs for skilled workers.