Priming the Talent Pump: Is Immigration Up to It? They're Global, Mobile and in Demand. How Can New Zealand Attract Its Share of Skilled Workers? Are Our Immigration Policies a Help or Hindrance?

Article excerpt

The migrant taxi-driver with multiple degrees has become something of an Auckland cliche 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 a year, if Immigration Minister David Cunliffe has his way, New Zealand might just have an immigration system that fits the bill. In a 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 a prompt and efficient decision process.

The process of dealing with asylum seekers is also in for a 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 a net migrant gain of 14,609. But without foreigners making up the numbers, the country would have suffered a net loss of 23,598. The impact on the economy of a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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. …