Where are the workers?

16 Mar 2018

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A question many industries in New Zealand are asking is “where are the workers?” While robotics and artificial intelligence are being touted to replace workers in many industries, this isn’t going to happen en masse anytime soon. Simply put, we in New Zealand are facing a labour crisis right now, and robotics will bring new challenges, such as workers with different skills to build and maintain these robots. So no matter what roles robotics or artificial intelligence take up, there will always be a need for workers.

New Zealand’s unemployment is at one of its lowest levels.  At the same time, many industries in New Zealand are in a growth phase; for this to continue, reliable and skilled labour must be found. There are simply not enough workers to service all New Zealand’s industries.

One solution that the horticulture industry developed in partnership with the previous Labour Government was the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, which brings workers from (mostly) the Pacific Islands to New Zealand temporarily for seasonal harvest and pruning work; the workers then return home. This scheme has been extraordinarily successful for all concerned, and was supported by the previous government as well. It is one of the key reasons that horticulture has had such significant growth over the 10 years since RSE’s creation. 

Today, just over 11,000 workers come down to New Zealand each year which, until now, has been all that was needed. The only constraint on the scheme has been the cap imposed by Government limiting the number of workers that can enter New Zealand each year. The rest of the harvest labour comes from New Zealanders and backpackers. This year the backpackers, although here in similar numbers to previous years, are spoiled for choice with offers. In addition, low employment has reduced the pool of New Zealand workers. We really should have planned for more RSE workers.

RSE workers do not replace New Zealanders; they are a consistent base of labour for each operation and, in many cases, not the majority of seasonal workers employed. The RSE workers have created permanent jobs for New Zealanders, due to the expansion of horticulture, and our focus is on finding, encouraging and equipping New Zealanders for careers in horticulture. This is no easy task and made more difficult when there are very few unemployed; despite our rewarding careers, excellent pay, and good conditions.

This week, another solution to the labour crisis was launched by the Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni and the Minister for Employment Willie Jackson at A S Wilcox & Sons in Pukekohe. The Wilcox’s are an intergenerational family of commercial vegetable growers, and large employers. The Ministers launched a highly interactive web site designed to link workers with employers (and vice-versa) across New Zealand. It also allows workers to create near permanent or permanent work by mixing and matching seasonal jobs of their choice. ‘Work the Seasons' lets the worker make see more detail about what they will do: what type of work it is, how much it pays and, just like Trip Adviser, workers are able to rate employers.  Although this web site has a horticulture portal, it applies to all industry; try it out here.

This could well turn out to a very useful tool, moving the job hunt away from having to call into a Work and Income site and find employment in the traditional way. We hope it’s a success.

To meet our demands for labour, we need to work every angle, and try every option. The more options we have, the greater the chance we have of finding that perfect employment relationship.

There is no right or wrong way just well-rewarded and satisfying employment enabling the continued growth of New Zealand. 

- Mike Chapman, CEO