Michael Wilson: Bring back the Poms

17:00, Jun 22 2013
Heading downunder: Assisted immigrants could solve today’s skills crisis. 

Is it time to bring back the £10 Pom scheme? Or, adjusting for inflation and geography, should that be a €100 Spaniard, Greek or Italian?

There does seem to be a big disconnect between a projected shortage of skilled construction workers in New Zealand and shocking levels of unemployment in countries like Spain and Greece. Should we be reviving the assisted passage schemes of old to bridge the gap?

The £10 Pom scheme allowed more than a million Brits to come to Australia and New Zealand in the post-war years. The Antipodes were short of workers and many Brits were tired of rationing and bombed-out houses. It was a perfect solution - ship them off to the colonies.

Unlike the convict days, it was voluntary and the assisted passage cost just £10. One of those "Poms" was the current Australian PM, Julia Gillard, whose family accepted an assisted passage from Wales to Adelaide. And, rather bizarrely, another was the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Where would Australia be without its £10 Poms?

The assisted passage scheme saw around 70,000 come to New Zealand. It proved so popular the fee was raised in the 1960s, with individuals paying £50 and families £100. So could such a scheme be a winner 50 years later?


Although Britain does have a relatively high unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent, it is in countries like Spain, Greece, and Portugal where youth unemployment is 50-plus per cent. Surely some of them must have the skills we need?

It seems we are about to experience a major skills shortage. This is the message from David Peterson, Fletcher Construction's general manager of earthquake recovery.

"Due to the volume of work as a result of the earthquakes, there simply have not been enough skilled, qualified and experienced people available to meet both immediate and ongoing needs."

In a recent interview with the New Zealand Herald he went on to say, "There have been estimates of potential shortages of skilled tradesmen in the order of 12-15,000. Key shortages are in the areas of painting, plastering and carpentry."

Now, if we can't train up our own unemployed quickly enough, then amongst those millions of young in Spain, Greece and Portugal, there must be a few thousand willing and able to come to Nueva Zelanda. Language may be a problem, but with the spread of Hollywood blockbusters surely some will be able to speak English as well, or even better, than Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone. Thanks to Peter Jackson some may even have a smattering of Middle English and Elvish.

We may need more than just those skilled in building. If all the recent surveys of the manufacturing and the services sectors of the economy prove to be true, then employment prospects look like they are on the up in New Zealand. Stronger economic growth is likely to mean our unemployment rate will drop below 6 per cent, perhaps by the end of the year.

So we will have the jobs and Europe and other parts of the world, have the millions of unemployed youth. I have emphasised the need for "young" workers because this brings me to another disconnect that exists in the global economy. In New Zealand we keep hearing about the ageing population, a growing superannuation crisis, and the prospect there will not be enough young people to keep all the oldies in the manner they are accustomed to.

Yet there is no shortage of young people on this planet. There is a simple solution - immigration. We do not have to have an ageing population and a superannuation crisis. We just have to import people, as we have for the entire existence of the country. New Zealand is a nation of migrants, as are the US, Australia and Canada.

The world's population is forecast to grow from its current 7 billion to 9 billion over the next 30-40 years. That is an extra two billion young people. Many European countries and some in Asia, like Japan and even China, do seem to have ageing populations. As does New Zealand to some extent.

But when 2 billion new young people are going to enter the world job market over the next few decades, surely it becomes a matter of choice if we allow our population to age excessively.

Post WWII, the Australian and New Zealand governments made a point of bringing workers to New Zealand. And it wasn't just the Poms. In Australia, the assisted passage was broadened to Italians, Greeks and many others. We had a smattering of Dutch and Poles ourselves.

So could we soon be welcoming some € 100 Juans or Juanitas The only thing is, they might have to build a bit of accommodation when they get here. Pronto.

Sunday Star Times