What’s needed for successfully redeploying unemployed workers

07 May 2020 What’s needed for successfully redeploying unemployed workers image

We all know we need to redeploy unemployed workers. There are numerous ways of finding people who are looking for work. The challenge is getting the right fit for both the worker and the employer, with the skills for the role. Another factor is for how long and how often this work is available, and where the available work is located.

A job milking cows two hours out of town in the early morning and evening does not suit everyone. Neither does a job that requires you to relocate either permanently or for a few months with double rents (even if there is a rent subsidy). Similarly working outside on hot, cold, wet and windy days will not suit everyone. Working nightshift in a packhouse or processing plant will not suit everyone either.

My point is that not every job suits everyone. Some people cannot do some jobs, whether it be because of skills, aptitude or where and when the job is.

In horticulture, we and our employers are often told that if you pay more all of the above challenges will be overcome. Employment is much more than money - it is a whole suite of things. It could be the location where the job is attractive to some people. For example, it could be close to good fishing, hunting or surfing. It could be the work hours are appealing, with the hours may be tailored to suit parents with school-aged children, so that they work while their children are at school.

How much people are paid is one factor, but admittedly an important factor. As we went into Alert Level 4 lockdown, some workers from sectors where they were unable to work ended up with jobs in fruit harvesting. Some of those workers then elected to stay at home when the Government put in place the wage subsidy for out of work people. This was much less than they were earning, but enough for their decision to keep the couch warm and watch Netflix.

There are two lessons from this situation: (1) successful and enduring employment in a holistic package that meets both the needs of the employer and the worker, and (2) to enable employment the Government needs to establish policies and payments that support exactly that, employment.

As we move through the COVID winter and spring arrives, there will be some very significant changes evident in New Zealand. Not the least will be the lack of tourists and backpackers. This will mean both hospitality and tourism will continue to suffer a crippling downturn in business and viability. Redeployment of these employed kiwis now and into the future will become critical.

So, here’s my prescription for making this work not only for those who are unemployed but the businesses that will employ them:

• It is not the case that anyone can do any job. Industry assisted by Government will need to work with those who are unemployed to see whether they have the aptitude and ability to undertake the work on offer. Job selection is required.

• A skills assessment will need to be done to see if there are occupations that fit their abilities and, where there are gaps, the right training should be identified and provided. Payment during this training will need to be made, and incentives put in place to see the successful completion of that training.

• Before the skills assessment is undertaken, a link to ensure that the employer and worker are a good fit needs to be made. It will also ensure that the training is what the employer needs. This also means that the worker knows that they have a job to go to after the training is completed. Having this employment offer established is a strong incentive for the worker to complete the training.

• The training provided cannot be an off the shelf pre-COVID programme. It needs to be tailored to the requirements of the workers and the employer. Programmes will need to be delivered in a time effective way, and not necessarily all in a classroom. It may be that on the job training is backed up by some internet-based resources. Initial training will also need to be of short duration then, once work has started, further training can be undertaken. Such flexibility may require the training to be outside the strictures of approved training – but the goal is to get the worker into a permanent and enduring career.

There is one last requirement, and that is to strike a balance between New Zealand workers filling these roles, and the offshore workers who have experience performing these tasks pre-COVID.

It is not practical or possible for New Zealand workers to replace all offshore workers, but it is possible for a balance to be achieved between the two groups. This is particularly true for seasonal work involving harvest, pruning and planting of horticulture crops for a few months. This non-permanent work suits workers who come to New Zealand from overseas to earn valuable funds.

Seasonal workers allow businesses to grow to a scale so that they can employ permanent New Zealanders in their roles. The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme has been successful in this for many years.

The expected absence of backpackers will open the way for the employment of many more New Zealanders on a seasonal basis, as has been seen in recent weeks.

Seasonal workers from both overseas and New Zealand are required. Not every New Zealander will want to do seasonal work. Industry working with Government can achieve an appropriate balance, which continues to allow work opportunities for offshore workers.

It is imperative that the World Bank-endorsed, RSE scheme continues – and that the cap on workers is increased – to enable horticulture to contribute fully to New Zealand’s economic recovery.

Employing unemployed New Zealanders is no easy task and requires special and careful attention. It can be done, but to be successful, it has to be done right, and there needs to be balance.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive