The Government is looking at how it can use the extra space that is now available in quarantine facilities to help fill skill shortages that have emerged with a stronger than expected recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson says even once most New Zealanders are vaccinated it won’t be a case of throwing a switch and letting people back into New Zealand.

Speaking after a pre-Budget speech to business people in Auckland today, hosted by the BNZ and Deloitte, Robertson said growing skill shortages was something that occupied a lot of the Government’s time.

The issue with food growers not having enough workers to pick and pack crops has been widely canvassed but other sectors are also feeling pressure from the border being closed to migrants.

Last week ANZ New Zealand chief executive Antonia Watson talked about how hard it was finding IT and compliance people and that its vacancies had blown out from 200 to 300 as a result.

Today BNZ chairman Doug McKay said one of the biggest concerns coming through from the bank’s customers was a lack of workers and a perennial complaint that New Zealand seems to hit capacity very quickly, and that skill shortages were a big issue.

“They are not in things you would expect – finding accountants are hard to get, data analysts, builders and construction people are hard to get. It is across the board.”

McKay questioned whether the extra spaces in managed isolation facilities opened by Australians no longer needing to go through MIQ could be used to bring skilled workers into the country to fill the gaps.

Robertson said he recognised there would be a need for more people to come in and fill skill gaps.

“The New Zealand economy will always include an element of immigration to support it.”

That was why it had recently tasked the Productivity Commission with looking at New Zealand’s immigration settings to make sure it was focused around skill gaps and lifting productivity and making sure that was adding value to the country.

But he said while some space had opened up in MIQ facilities there were complications created by the fact it was now mainly higher-risk people coming in through those facilities.

“By taking the Australians out of the mix for MIQ, you create an environment where they were always the lowest risk people so MIQ has now got the higher-risk people who are more likely to need more time in MIQ.

“There is just a little bit of that to be able to work our way through, we have also taken a couple of the hotels out to fix their air conditioning systems. Yes, the short answer is we are looking towards trying to get more people who are needed in our economy in through that route. There will be more to say about that soon.”

But he also pointed to the Government’s apprenticeship and specific trade training programme which had seen 100,000 people sign up to train since it became free in July last year.

“We have done the thing that we missed out on doing after the Global Financial Crisis … in that period of time apprentices were the first laid off. Then when the recovery came along there weren’t the people to do the work we needed to have done. We have got past that point, construction is going gangbusters and so that workforce is going to be there now.”

“We have got to train our own people as well as having an immigration policy that supports that productive growth.”

Robertson was also asked about what would happen with the borders once New Zealanders had been fully vaccinated.

The Government is aiming to get all over-16-year-olds vaccinated by the end of the year.

Robertson said it was not standing still, pointing to the opening of the transtasman bubbleand the soon-to-be-open border with Rarotonga.

“Where we can safely open the borders up for people and move people we will do that. We will continue to look for opportunities to do that.”

He said the Government was looking at more travel into the Pacific but was also mindful of New Zealand not being a Covid exporter.

“Then once we get everyone vaccinated that opens up more opportunities.”

But he warned people against thinking it would be a matter of flicking a switch and turning on travel again.

“It is going to take time, not necessarily so much because of us, but also because of how other countries are thinking, what are the individual decisions people are making, people are going to be cautious about that.”

He said an important piece of work that was under way was the work by IATA [International Air Transport Association] on the vaccine passport which would be something people could use to travel more freely.

“That will be an important part of the developments into 2022.So I would see it more as an evolution rather than a flicking of a switch that we will see person-to-person travel.”

Robertson said from July all of New Zealand would be able to get vaccinated and he called on business leaders to encourage it through their workforces.

“It is just so critical for our future. I’m really asking you all to play your part, particularly from July.”

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