After years of losing our best workers to Australia with its great weather, high wages and promises of a better lifestyle, the golden dream is over and disillusioned Kiwis and out-of-work Australians are heading this way. MARY SEARLE BELL explains.
FOR YEARS AND YEARS New Zealand has sat in the shadow of that lucky country next door. And it cast a big shadow at times. During the boom years, nowhere boomed louder or bigger than Australia with its oil, gas, iron ore and gold. Mining was huge, and along with the soaring demand for commodities came a huge tax revenue which saw the government increase spending on all sort of projects for the public.
We Kiwis looked across the ditch at the seeming abundance of wealth and the opportunity to get a share of it proved too tempting for many. Everyone had a cousin or a neighbour or a colleague or five who moved to Australia to take advantage of the jobs with big paycheques that were on offer. And no market had more opportunities or more cash than the mining and construction sectors.
Aussie companies targeted their New Zealand counterparts, stealing their best staff, their second-best staff and almost anyone who was willing to move across the Tasman.
Then the markets crashed and things went a bit wobbly around the world. But not in Australia. It continued to thrive.
However, finally the balance is shifting and the Australia’s lucky glow has started to dim.
Commodity prices are plummeting. The demand for resources is waning and, as a result, the tax revenue is dropping and government spending is being stopped left, right and centre.
The two states hit particularly hard are the resource rich Western Australia and Queensland.
In Pilbara, Western Australia’s honey pot of mines, redundancies are coming thick and fast, with hundreds of jobs being slashed across the industry in the past few months.
In an ABC news article, Mayor of Karratha Peter Long said he had noticed a sombre mood among residents. He said it was no longer just construction workers being made redundant as projects move into the production phase, which had been expected, but operations staff as well…
“People that have been here a long time have to leave town, I think they’ve been given two months and they’ve got to uproot themselves, take their children out of school and go somewhere else looking for a job.
“People are depressed, it’s really tough.”
The problem is, the rest of Australia is suffering from the same problems. It is estimated there are over 1000 engineers out of work in Australia right now.
For the many Kiwis who moved across the ditch chasing the Aussie dollar, not only is there no job for them but, for those who moved there after 2001, there is no government assistance either.
There’s only one place to turn, and that’s back home.
What’s more, for many Australians, New Zealand is starting to look more and more appealing.
In fact, 2014 saw more Aussies immigrating here than in any of the previous 36 years.
Kiwi emigration to Australia is down significantly too. In the year to January 2015 there was a net loss of just under 3000 to Australia, compared to 17,000 in the 12 months to January 2014, and 37,900 the 12 months before that.
Things are certainly looking rosier over here, and although Australians haven’t traditionally considered New Zealand when looking for employment opportunities, this mindset is changing.
Helping them across the ditch is international recruitment firm Working In. Their expertise is in finding skilled people around the world for organisations who can’t find the necessary talent locally. What better then than to hire a New Zealander who’s keen to move home, or an Australian eager to start a new life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
In a co-venture with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Working In held job expos across Australia earlier in the year. Among the more than 100 companies exhibiting were infrastructure heavyweights Leighton Contractors, Fletchers and Vector, along with their smaller contemporaries including Wharehine Group and Clarksons Electrical Contracting.
Working In director Scott Mathieson says the first expo, held in Perth, aroused the curiosity of the press as well as the public, both intrigued that the Kiwis were looking there to get people.
That Perth show attracted more than 1700 visitors as well as national TV and talkback radio.
After Perth came expos in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Each show was pitched differently in different parts of the country, with an emphasis on trades in Perth, IT in Sydney and hospitality in Melbourne. Scott says the shows were so successful they’re doing it all again in July.
Late last year, employment minister Steven Joyce told an Australian breakfast show that New Zealand is looking for 50,000 new skilled workers in the next two years, saying we have “big shortages” in areas such as IT, software design, engineering and construction.
One of Joyce’s election promises was to help create jobs, and so, employers are paying just $4950 of the $14,950 expo fee, with the government pitching in the remaining $10,000.
This certainly makes participating in one of the shows an easy choice, especially for the smaller companies. And it is paying off for them too.
Scott says Clarksons Electrical Contracting picked up five Kiwis in Perth to add to its workforce here.
General manager David Clarkson says advertising in New Zealand wasn’t giving him the steady stream of new employees that he was after. Clarkson’s has offices throughout the country and with all that’s happening in Auckland and Christchurch, a reliable supply of qualified staff is necessary. David started looking to recruit from the UK when he discovered the Perth event and since it was closer, signed up.
The government subsidy was also appealing. David says that, even with the cost of flights and accommodation, the expense was about the same as recruitment fees for hiring two or three people. And for his money he came home with six – one South African as well as those five homesick Kiwis.
“I’m still talking to a few people I met at the expo who are thinking about moving here, so there’s a few more in the pipeline. And that’s the steady stream of people I was talking about.”
For the new employees, one of the appeals of Clarkson’s is that it will place its new hires in their location of choice.
“A lot of the people we talked to had been in Australia for around five years and had earned a bit of money and now wanted to be near family. One guy we hired had family in Tauranga and that’s where he wanted to live. We can accommodate pretty much where they want.”
It’s that feeling of homesickness amongst the New Zealanders in Australia that David noticed.
“We had so many people come up to us who just wanted to chat to another Kiwi.”
David is very pleased with his latest recruits: “They’ve all had very good training and have high health and safety and compliance standards too.
Wharehine Group teamed up with a group of companies from Auckland including Ateed (Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development) and Allied Workforce to participate in the expo.
Wharehine managing director Rob Gibson was impressed with the number of people who attended the event. He also commented how they all looked like they’d had enough.
“They were ready to come home,” he says. “Especially those with families. They didn’t ask about the money, they just wanted to come home.”
Rob says they were after the Kiwis first. “It was a good chance to pull some guys back. We lost about five or six people, probably more, to Australia over the years.”
“We took a hammering six to seven years ago, along with everybody else, and we’ve had to work hard. But we’ve got some good projects now and good customers.
Wharehine’s recruitment is to fill natural growth in the company. From the expo they hired a Kiwi to their quarry operation and a Spanish engineer who hadn’t been enjoying the lifestyle in Perth. According to Rob, three months on, he’s very happy to call himself a Kiwi.
They’ve also employed a couple of extra returning New Zealanders.
“We’re seeing consistent enquiries now from people who’ve been working in Australia,” he says.
It appears the golden dream of life in Australia has turned into a nightmare for many Kiwis and they are simply packing up and coming home.
And it seems that more than a few Aussies are coming with them.