When the brain drain from New Zealand to Australia peaked in the early 1980s, former PM Robert Muldoon quipped that it raised the IQ of both countries. It was clever but untrue. Wayne Scott, CEO of AQA and MinEX.
Like many other young Kiwis at one time or another, I took my skills to Australia to widen them and to experience the life and higher incomes that ‘The Lucky Country’ had to offer.
And, like the majority of us, I came home, though I keep returning to see family over there.
Emigration is an economic fact of life that, for a shortish time, was put on hold by Covid-closed borders. Now, the risks of a new brain drain to Australia (and beyond) features in a disturbing report released late last year.
Commissioned by the pan-sector Workforce Development Council, the report identifies that the manufacturing, extractive and engineering sectors will be 40,000 workers short in five years’ time if we don’t act very soon.
It found widespread labour disruption caused by Covid, immigration policy settings, constraints on supply chains and the international labour market.
Compounding that will be what’s likely to be the worst brain drain to Australia for 30 plus years. To say we will be at a crisis by 2028 if industry skills gaps continue to widen is an understatement. So, what do we need to do?
Well, for one thing we all need to be better managers. You only need to look at the world’s wealthiest man, Elon Musk, to find a model of how not to act as a manager. His treatment of Twitter staff since his take-over is the worst example of poor people management, not that any of us can afford to lose billions of dollars, or sack half our staff.
I loved what top Australian extractive sector health and safety consultant Jodi Goodall told a MinEx forum in Greymouth late last year; that managers needed to constantly consult their ‘frontline experts’ – their staff.
One way our sector will help resolve its challenges with attracting good workers is to look to how well some of our companies are doing in recruiting women into their workforce.
Fletcher Building has worked hard since former CEO Mark Adamson left abruptly in 2017 amid major losses and a management style that reputedly earned the nickname “the axeman” before his appointment because of his penchant for responding to problems by sacking people.
Last year, Fletcher Building reported its intern cohort was a 50:50 split between men and women and its graduate cohort was 40 percent women. Sure, the company had to lay-off some staff during the pandemic’s downturn, but it’s still attracting and training staff, including lots of women – and managing to make record profits.
Last year, this included an effort to attract more truck drivers to replace an ageing, mostly male cohort; a lot of women were among those showing interest.
We all need to work at bringing in and supporting more women into our workforce. For years, we’ve relied on immigration to keep our economy going. Now, the world is competing for staff and our Immigration staff don’t help by their ponderous approach to approvals.
As one small contribution, MinEx, along with Straterra and AQA is bringing together a Women in Extractives lunch to be held in March during the same week as International Women’s Day with new awards marking those who’ve advanced diversity.
Of course, developing a more inclusive culture and offering is not so easy for small and medium-sized businesses which don’t have the size or budgets to keep up with inclusiveness and skills transformation.
SMEs are also most representative of the woeful stats that show only about one in six of our extractive sector’s workforce is female.
In this year’s MinEx workshops which start this month (January 2023) and will run until October across 16 smaller centres, I’m running a session on diversity and respect in the workplace.
That was in part prompted by a challenging address at our 2021 QuarryNZ conference from Dr Mary Obele, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine. She told us women can bring a different perspective to a quarry site, but they need to be treated with respect.
“It’s not just a question of throwing in an extra wharepaku (toilet) for the wahine. What about some dunny dignity?” Mary reminded us that toilets should be clean, have a bin, and a lock in addition to somewhere to wash hands. She noted the increasing labour shortages in the sector and the answer could be very simple. “Just hire more women and treat them well.”
As good as the opportunities are to recruit more people from the other half of our population, we do need to look more broadly.
While some people do retire at 65, many want to continue working – though not necessarily full-time. An employer who provides that flexibility may find seniors are not only experienced and reliable workers, they’re loyal.
We are undoubtedly starting to see a lot of employers looking at the short-term easy route to fill vacancies; making a more lucrative offer to a competitor’s staffers.
That will only fuel an already volatile inflationary environment which impacts all businesses. We need to do better than adopt that approach and another previous ‘solution’ to labour shortages – putting more pressure on existing staff.
A report commissioned by the Skills Consulting Group has found burnout is the number one issue faced by employees as businesses deal with skills shortages. Yet it also found more than 40 percent of employees want to learn, want problem solving, or leadership skills.
Some of the solutions to our skills shortages are already in our workforce, others are likely to be in our community, waiting to be asked if we can only treat them with respect and some flexibility.
What an exciting prospect. Perhaps we could even get Elon Musk atwitter?