It’s neither immigration nor immigrant-bashing that New Zealand needs more of, argues PAT PILCHER. Instead, it’s all about education.
Over the last few weeks New Zealand media has been filled with anti-immigrant rants following the revelation that several hundred foreign workers are needed to complete a hotel planned for central Auckland.
The reaction from chunks of the public and certain grandstanding politicians was predictably swift, damning and poorly reasoned. Punters condemned the use of immigrants and Radio New Zealand also grilled the Minister of Education.
But here’s the thing, most people are at the issue in the wrong place. Importing skills might be an immigration issue, but it is first and foremost an education issue.
While the Minister of Immigration was being worked over by Radio NZ’s earnest and diligent team, no one bothered to stop and ask the Minister of Education why we’re importing skilled labour into NZ when 4.9 percent of all Kiwis are unemployed.
The simple answer is that we have huge skills shortages. Yup, even though just under 5 percent of all New Zealanders of working age are unemployed, we have skills shortages. The jobs are there, but something has gone terribly wrong.
The fact that we’re importing several hundred construction workers to build a hotel in Auckland is a good case in point. Civil Contractors New Zealand were recently quoted in the media as saying that the construction industry needs a whopping 30,000 workers in two years’ time. They say that not enough people are heading into a career in the construction industry, despite the fact it is forecast to grow by 4.7 percent, which is twice NZ’s projected job growth rate by 2019. According to Business Innovation and the Employment Ministry forecasts, one in five new jobs created between 2016 and 2019 will be in construction. So you’d think we’d be tooling up our education system to crank out construction workers, welders, sparkies and plumbers, right? Wrong.
You see, this isn’t so much an issue of immigration policy failure, but more one of long term systemic issues with New Zealand’s education system. I’d argue that this is probably the result of education being treated as an exercise in accountancy by successive governments over the last 20 years.
Instead of aligning the skills taught against what NZ’s future economy may need, governments from both sides of the house took turns at wringing more money out of the education system to make it ‘more efficient’.
But efficient for whom? While the books back in the 80s and 90s may have balanced a little better because we saved some cash on education, the longer-term reality is that we now have huge skill shortages and unemployment, not to mention the social and economic costs associated with it. Put simply, a lack of future planning and an ill-informed and shortsighted view of education now has New Zealand experiencing unemployment and skills shortages. It’s bonkers and it needs to be fixed.
Another fail lies with how education is often seen. It isn’t just time spent at school or university. Education is life-long. In a job market where redundancy and restructures are the norm, being able to re-skill is a vital part of a flexible workforce and an economy that can innovate and rebound.
Some lesser informed individuals are likely to say that New Zealand’s 5 percent unemployed consists of those who don’t want to work. I’m calling bullshit on that. Hardly anyone in their right mind wants to be unemployed today. Benefit entitlements are at best miserable. Even though wages are sometimes not much better, working has more than a little self-esteem attached to it. While a very small minority may choose not to work, the reality is that most of us do want to work, even if we lack the requisite and in-demand skills needed to land a job.
Perhaps Labour needs to focus a little less on immigrant bashing and focus more on re-designing the education system to encompass trades and other in-demand skills instead of throwing truckloads of cash at pointless degrees that add bugger all back into our economy. New Zealand’s 4.9 percent unemployed could be easily absorbed into the workforce. There really is no excuse.