Aussie Skills Shortage Prompts New Kiwi Exodus Fears

Aussie skills shortage prompts new Kiwi exodus fears

By Christopher Adams
The New Zealand Herald
12:45 PM Monday Feb 8, 2010

New Australian employment research has shown skill shortages in many sectors – leading to fears that more skilled New Zealanders may soon head across the Tasman to fill gaps in the Aussie job market.

The report, commissioned by Clarius Group, which operates a number of recruitment agencies across the Asia-Pacific region, found a “significant and surprising turnaround” for the majority of skilled occupations across Australia in the December quarter.

Seventeen of the 20 skilled occupations covered by the report indicated an increase in demand for skilled labour, with nine of those categories registering a shortage of skilled workers.

According to the report, the oversupply of skilled labour across the 20 occupations was down from 45,000 (in the September quarter) to 17,000 in December.

Occupations with the highest levels of skills shortages included building and engineering professionals, health professionals, automotive tradespeople, metal tradespeople, wood tradespeople and IT workers.

The report also said there was shortage of 4000 chefs across Australia.

It attributes this sudden rebound to the Federal Government's controversial stimulus package aimed at boosting economic activity through the construction sector.

Alasdair Thompson, CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), said skills shortages in New Zealand had not disappeared during the recession, with unskilled workers beefing up the unemployment statistics.

He said the flow of New Zealanders to Australia slowed down during the recession as people “hunkered down” and avoided making decisions during the downturn.

“However, that's not going to last too much longer, with the demand for skilled labour [in Australia] and [the Australian] economy cooking with gas, it's quite predictable that the brain drain is going to speed up again,” Thompson said.

“That's going to have the immediate impact of less demand for houses and all the things that go in houses – so that's a drop in GDP there – and a loss of skills in New Zealand which are still in short supply.”

Thompson said Kiwi employers could be faced with even greater skills shortages in a year or two if the Australian economy continues to grow faster than New Zealand's.

“That affects [New Zealand businesses] ability to perform,” he said.

EMA advisory services manager David Lowe said a shortage of skilled workers in the health, IT and production manufacturing sectors had existed right through the recession.

“The recession environment has masked the underlying skills shortage,” he said.

“As soon as the orders and the recovery starts coming, we believe that a general skills shortage is going to re-emerge – it never really went away,” he said.

Lowe said Australia was a step ahead of New Zealand in its recession recovery, and what happened there was a good indication of “what's in store for us”.

“I think the thing that we need to be very mindful of is, while we might not have jobs for some people in New Zealand, if the Aussies have jobs for them it's a bit of a no-brainer as to what they are going to do – they're going to jump on a plane.

“And then of course our recovery comes just a fraction after Australia's and we will go looking for these people and they're no longer here.”

Lowe said the EMA had been having discussions with employers about whether or not they had a “skills retention policy” in place during the downturn.

“About half of employers said they have a deliberate skills retention policy in place,” he said.

Scott McKee, general manager for specialist IT recruitment agency Candle, said he had noticed Kiwis beginning to chase after jobs that were becoming available in Australia, but said there were also signs of an upsurge in the New Zealand job market.

“Even today there are several roles on our books that we are struggling to fill, particularly in software development,” he said.

McKee said if the Australian economy continued to boom, it was likely that more skilled, though unemployed, Kiwis would try their luck across the Tasman.

“It's like any market upsurge – people will follow the jobs,” he said.

Roman Rogers, general manager for Hudson recruitment Auckland, said New Zealand needed to be wary of losing skilled workers across the Tasman.

He said there were many things that could happen over the next 12 months that could affect the availability of skilled Kiwi workers.

“Certainly, a growing Australian economy, with a clear demand for certain skill sets could be one of those threats,” he said.

Rogers said he would not be surprised if Australian employers began “attracting talent” from New Zealand firms.

“It will be more challenging for organisations to hold onto their people, and harder for employers to attract individuals to their organisations,” he said.

By Christopher Adams