Out of workers: Jobs on the spot, tourism businesses plead for help

Taupō, in the middle of the North Island, is at the epicentre of a tourism jobs crunch.

One hotel says demand for staff is running at unprecedented levels while at Mt Ruapehu ski-fields warn that without urgent Government action parts of the slopes may not open this season.

While some operations are short by scores of staff both Kiwis and from overseas, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) says difficulties getting just one highly specialised grooming machine driver from Sweden into the country could affect its operations on two ski fields.

Taupō with its central location attractive to a surprisingly strong surge in domestic tourism and it recovered quickly after last year’s April/May lockdown.

Tracey Poole, Hilton Taupō hotel manager says the property hasn’t seen an early winter for bookings like this for a decade and it is having to go through temp agencies to plug workforce gaps and there are still vacancies and not enough locals to fill them.

“We’re suffering badly from it. There is a huge shortage right across the country.”

In a town of just on 20,000, and plenty of other tourist businesses competing for staff, there’s not enough local candidates and Kiwis are less willing to work in the hotel sector than those workers form overseas.

‘We have less opportunity to recruit locally and we have relied hugely in those busier times on working visa holders. We need as many as we can get.”

And she points outthe requirement to pay the median wage of $25.50 an hour to visa holders from overseas was distorting the wages throughout businesses which had Kiwis doing equivalent roles on lower rates.

At RAL, chief executive Jono Dean says the situation is dire.

He said there simply weren’t New Zealanders who could do some jobs and not worth training them up for just a few months work, such as a groomer operator who was licenced to winch a $500,000 machine around ski-fields at Whakapapa and Turoa.

”That’s the nature of our industry.It would be like training an apprentice builder and telling them they can only work in summer,” says Dean.

‘We literally need one person and that application with Immigration has been in since March of this year — it’s a deplorable length of time It twill have a significant impact on the terrain we can operate — it means we can’t open parts of the resort.”

Throughout the country the picture is the same in the industry that pre-pandemic vied with dairy to be the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner, based on

Businesses which shed tens of thousands of jobs a year ago are now struggling to find staff to fill vacancies, estimated at up to 80,000 over the next five years.

That depends on a number of factors — international borders opening fully the chief one.

But even now with a relative trickle of Australian visitors and Kiwis seeing their own country in numbers greater than before the pandemic, the shortage of workers is acute.

The strong GDP numbers support other figures showing the domestic tourism boom as some of between $7 billion and $9b spent on overseas trips a year now being spent in this country.

Household spending on accommodation and restaurants helped support growth in the accommodation and food services industry, up 2.3 per cent in the March 2021 quarter.

And because of the two-way transtasman bubble there are anecdotal reports of Kiwi tourism workers being lured by Australian firms to work there, exacerbating the labour shortage problem.

An unsustainable model – CTU

While the Council of Trade Unions doesn’t have a specific position on tourism it says whatneeds to happen in to the labour market isn’t simply about improving pay.

All New Zealanders deserve good jobs, that provide proper careers, and allow them to meet their and their families aspirations. Tourism is no different in that regard,” said a spokeswoman.

Pay was an important part of that – but so is job security, training, and opportunities for career advancement.

The tourism sector in the past has been characterised by low paid, seasonal, insecure work.

”It also tends to be in places that have really difficult housing markets, making finding and maintaining a home really difficult. ”

The CTU also believes that any business whose model is built upon a continuous supply of migrant labour is not truly sustainable.

”The sector needs a long term plan – such as an Industry Transformation Plan – to move away from its reliance on imported labour. ”

Accor Hotels’ Pacific region chief executive Simon McGrath said the group had about 100 vacancies in hotels throughout the country at every level and says employers needed to think long term.

With good training, good pathways and flexible work hours his group had been able to attract people ”and when they’re in the job respect them and care for them.”

Employers needed to do their bit before demanding governments solved all their problems, such as re-opening borders to workers and tourists before safe to do so,said McGrath who is based in Sydney.

Throughout the wider region Accor has about 1000 job openings.

”In every country there is a shortage of talent in tourism and hospitality.Everybody loves working in tourism – we need to get the message out there that we’ve got a strong a strong industry,” he said.

Air New Zealand lost about a third of its 12,500-strong workforce as the pandemic grounded dozens of its planes last year.But when domestic travel bounced back and then transtasman flights started, it began re-hiring some crew.

Its chief people officer Nikki Dines said the airline had found staff have been very keen to come back where opportunities have arisen.

”However, for many roles that require technical skills and qualifications we are witnessing a real shortage of talent. New Zealand has in the past benefited from candidates coming from offshore to meet demand for digital and technology talent in particular,” she said.

”With this tap being turned off for over a year now, we are finding that there is a talent shortage in the market and increased competitionacross a number of areas.”

Tourism agency forced into 180 degree turn again

Public agency Go With Tourism(GWT) was and first launched in Auckland in April 2019 to tackle an industry skills shortage.

When Covid-19 hit in March it temporarily shifted its focus to help industry workers with redeployment but now has switched back to its original mandate, in an illustration of the whipsaw impact of the pandemic.

Matt Stenton is GWT’s programme director and says from Stewart Island to Northland staff shortages were broad and severe.

“The biggest problem at the moment is we have lost up to 90,000 workers in tourism, hospitality in the last year. We now look at the next five years needing 80,000 people.”

He said the issue was complex. Kiwis avoided tourism jobs because many roles were seasonal, casual and sometimes short term.

“And we’re asking people to move around different regions, there’s no security in that.”

These were all reasons why the jobs were ideal for overseas workers who, as many Kiwis on their OE, are prepared to move around more and tolerate more casual conditions.
There is also something else.

“And then there’s an issue that goes back into schooling and is systemic. I’d go right back into the fact that Europeans have never been that great at serving people,” said Stenton.

What the politicians say – and don't

An attempt to get comment from Tourism Minister Stuart Nash on labour shortages was not successful.

Asked whether Nash was available to talk about problems businesses were having finding staff and what the Government was doing to help solve it, his press secretary Kathryn Street said “workplace relations/immigration settings are not strictly one of his roles.”

Instead she referred the Herald to a story in another newspaper in which Finance Minister Grant Robertson quoted on the issue of pay rates generally.

Nash is also minister for Economic and Regional Development and Small Business.

National’s spokesman on tourism Roger McClay was keen to talk and says Nash needed to get to the coalface more frequently where he would see many businesses that ”deserve to survive” at risk of closing down.

“He’s talking about tourism in the years to come and he’s much less focused on the problems today. I think he needs to get out and talk to tourism operators alot more than he is able to in Wellington.”

Increases in benefit rates announced in the Budget was making it more difficult to persuade some people to take on jobs, he said.

Most tourism businesses were small operations which had made considerable sacrifices during lockdowns and much of the Government’s support so far had been for bigger firms.

”The tourism sector doesn’t understand why the vaccinated people willing to go through MIQ are not being allowed into the country.”

A decade to recover

Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Aotearoa said the reliance on overseas labour grew around 2013 when a surge in the number of overseas visitors coincided with the growing perceptions jobs in tourism meant low pay, anti-social hours and casual employment.

While this was a turnoff for Kiwis, the more transient roles were ideal for visiting work visa holders who could earn money while seeing something of the country.

“We disagree with immigration settings being used as a tool to raise wage rates but we acknowledge the Governments right to control it.

But there are jobs right across the economy and that you simply can’t attract Kiwis to do.

Before Covid the industry was looking at a decade to re-engineer the shape of the workforce with better training and education curriculum changes making the sector more attractive to New Zealanders.

The pandemic had thrown what was a strategy put in place three years ago into disarray.
He said job applicants were now in a strong position and pay rates were increasing.

Besides other businesses in other sectors paying to attract tourism workers and offering jobs on the spot, they were also being lured to Australia. Roberts said North Queensland and the Northern Territory were running recruitment campaigns in this country.

McClay also said he had heard anecdotal reports of tourism jobs being offered from across the Tasman.

Roberts advised any employer to move quickly once they’d done necessary background checks on applicants. Other industries were offering jobs on the spot. Pay wasn’t the only factor needed to attract good staff to tourism.

“Train them up and they will stick with you.” Roberts said the industry was still pushing hard to have tourism be classed as an achievement standard, not the lower status unit standard for NCEA qualifications.

“Tourism and hospitality courses tended to be a dumping ground for less academically able students. This shows a lack of respect for them and the industry,” he said.

Go With Tourism’s Stenton agrees.

He says tourism is dumbed down to be a ”cab” or cabbage subject.

”The secondary school system doesn’t do it well. Tourism teachers is doing a great job to try and promote it, but unfortunately it’s dumbed down.”

This could be about to change with the Ministry of Education reviewing NCEA subjects for Levels 2 and 3 this year.

The ministry has received a submission from the Tourism Teachers’ Association for tourism to become an achievement standard subject.

Vacancies at the Cordis – for staff

Franz Mascarenhas, managing director of theCordis Auckland says there are about 40 vacancies at the hotel which is about to expand by 244 to a total of 640 rooms from the beginning of October with the completion of a new tower.

While our policy is first and foremost to look for Kiwis, the sheer lack of candidates is to the point of extreme, with most ads getting minimal local applications for roles that are entry-level with limited skills or experience required.”

The hotel was fielding many applications from overseas.

”These people have no pathway to currently enter NZ currently. At this point of time, we have over 40 vacancies across the hotel which is why we are capping business levels.This is constraining our ability to recover from past Covid-related losses.”

In the short term existing staff were being offered extra hours and being supplemented by temp agency workers.

”Despite doing this, we have still had to put caps on our business levels in order to protect our staff and ensure our service levels are not compromised,” said Mascarenhas.

Long-term there the solution could only come from the Government.

There needs to be some consistent policies in relation to extending visas for those that are in the country inclusive of essential skills and temporary work visas, so people have a degree of certainty and do not leave the country, he said.

Hospitality needed to be put on the critical border exception list so a larger pool of people can come into the country.

”Secondly, even when the borders open, we cannot have policies that only encourage high skilled migrants to come to New Zealand as there needs to be recognition that the pool of Kiwis is completely inadequate to meet the needs of the business community.”

Tourism Export council chief executive Lynda Keene said the hotel sector was critical to New Zealand’s economic recovery post-pandemic.

”As an example, from an accommodation perspective, skiers in Queenstown this winter could notice something they may not have seen before. The person who checked them in is the same person who helps clean their room.”

Some hotels were operating with 40 per cent fewer rooms occupied compared to pre-pandemic.

”Such a situation will affect hotels’ abilities to actively recover from the pandemic quickly and this will also stifle the recovery progress of other operators in the tourism sector,” says Keene.

OUT OF WORKERS: A Business Herald Series

MONDAY:
• The tech sector’s new pain point

TUESDAY:
• Worse than Covid: Hospitality’s battle for staff
• Kate MacNamara: Immigration and the puzzle of New Zealand’s tight labour market

WEDNESDAY:
• ‘Ridiculous’ shortage of MIQ spaces for construction workers
THURSDAY
• Fishing for workers

THURSDAY:
• Horticulture has ‘wall of work coming’ and dwindling staff
• James Cameron laments worker shortage

COMING UP
• Devastating: Employers plead for help
• Solutions: What should the Govt be doing, how firms are adapting

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