28 May 2017

Migrants, please come south

Southland has launched a drive to attract 10,000 new migrants to the region to boost businesses and grow the community.

A partnership between Southland Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) has led to the development of an internship programme to connect overseas students with local employers.

Southland’s companies say they are desperate to attract talent and keep skilled workers in the area.

And the overarching Southland Regional Development Strategy (SoRDS) is co-ordinating the plan of action, bringing together 10 teams of business, iwi and community leaders to look at different factors to help build a bigger, vibrant and culturally diverse community supportive of new business and innovation.

But in election year, business leaders fear any clampdown on general immigration numbers, could derail the region’s people target, which they say is vital for economic growth and the development of the region’s community.

Carla Forbes, President of Southland Chamber of Commerce said: “We are concerned. Immigration is a huge political issue.

“But in this area we need to grow, not stand still and do nothing, and that’s the case culturally and socially, as well as for business and industry.

“We’re going all out there to bring in new people to boost our communities, our skills base and our economy.”

Forbes pointed to February’s Maxim Institute report which warned that Rotorua, Taupo, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Kaipara and the West Coast were all in the same boat as Southland - among 44 of 67 authorities, which faced population stagnation or decline within the next 30 years.

“Decline such as this could place councils under severe financial strain in terms of funding infrastructure,” said Forbes.

SoRDS project manager Sarah Brown, said the current regional population was currently sitting about 98,000.

She said the 10,000 target was set two years ago at the Mayoral Forum which brought together the four civic leaders from the area together with representatives from the business community to decide what Southland really needed to thrive.

Population was a focus. While the region has 2.3 per cent of New Zealand’s population at present, that figure is expected to shrink to 1.8 per cent by 2025, because of the expected rise in immigration in other parts of the country.

Brown said: “The repercussions of that will be a loss of services and a downward flow.

“Another pressure is that 5000 more Southlanders will be retiring in the next 10 years, so we have come up with a plan which is based on bringing people in.”

The targets will be returning Southlanders, people who have studied elsewhere in the country and are looking to return, and those who have moved away for work - as well as international migrants.

Brown said one attraction for potential migrants was affordable house prices - $500,000 would buy a luxury family home in Invercargill, for example, which wasn’t the case in Auckland, she said. The region also has a low unemployment rate.

While many jobs were in the rural sector, there were also a broad range of roles in other sectors, such as management.

“In Auckland for example, where the infrastructure is struggling and house building cannot keep up with demand, migrants are a sensitive issue. But in Southland we have to plan for the work that is needed now and what is to come. It would be a real shame if any curbs on immigration would slow our growth.”

She said MBIE had been “wonderful and very engaged” as had been the local community.

Southland Chamber of Commerce’s internship programme with SIT sees employers take an intern for several weeks. The business would benefit from their skills and have the opportunity to work with someone from a completely different culture.

Equally, the students would get the experience of working in a Southland business to help them make decisions about whether to make their lives and careers there.

SIT’s marketing manager Chami Abeysinghe is originally from Sri Lanka. After completing postgraduate studies at SIT seven years ago, she decided to stay on.

Abeysinghe was a high-flying marketeer in her the country of her birth, working for Fortune 500 companies, with overseas postings, and drew a high salary.

Transferring her career to New Zealand meant making a new network, starting at college and working her way through student jobs in takeaway restaurants and call centres. She decided to stay in New Zealand because she had grown up during Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war and loved the new sense of peace and safety.

“There were not so many international students then. It was a small place and I slowly realised that success depended on recommendations - by meeting people.”

Paul Adams of Invercargill-based boatmaker Stabicraft has taken one of the first interns as part of the programme. One of his design engineers is from Poland. Adams admits that recruiting the skills he needs could be a struggle.

“I need a high quality store manager and our design team is growing, so I’m going to need a couple of industrial designers. It’s hard to find those skills and harder to attract them South. I’m a Southlander and in the 1990s considered moving the business to Hamilton, but I had everything I needed here. It’s a little bit different, but we work it out.”