Immigration policy not SME-friendly

VISA TROUBLES: Leonardo Bresolin, right, co-owner of Wellington's Crazy Horse steakhouse with brother Lorenzo,  says it's hard keeping good hospitality staff in the country.
VISA TROUBLES: Leonardo Bresolin, right, co-owner of Wellington's Crazy Horse steakhouse with brother Lorenzo, says it's hard keeping good hospitality staff in the country.

The answer to the skills shortage lies in more consistent visa processing; integration between government and industry; and industry-specific training for immigration case managers.

That's according to small business owners, who say while immigration policy isn't stopping them from finding skilled foreign workers there is room for improvement.

Leonardo Bresolin finds it hard keeping good hospitality staff in the country, especially restaurant managers. The co-owner of Wellington's Scopa cafe, Duke Carvell's restaurant and the Crazy Horse steakhouse recently opened a pizzeria and coffee wholesale business.

When one of his restaurant managers, an experienced migrant, applied to Immigration New Zealand (INZ) to renew her visa recently she hit a wall. "This manager had a visa for two years then Immigration declined her a new one."

INZ told Bresolin it wouldn't renew the manager's visa because Work and Income (WINZ) had New Zealanders who could do the job, in spite of the fact restaurant manager is on INZ's Immediate Skills Shortage List. All attempts to source staff from inside New Zealand must be exhausted before INZ will help employers employ migrants.

"We put an ad on TradeMe specifically for her role, monitored it for two weeks and had maybe 40 applicants. None of them was suitable," says Bresolin. "We went to WINZ with the information and WINZ said it didn't have anyone who could fill the position. Finally, she got a letter from Immigration saying she'd been declined."

Workers who no longer hold a valid visa can apply under section 61 of the Immigration Act 2009 for a further visa. With Bresolin's help the manager reapplied. "She had to be out of the country within 40 days and couldn't work in the meantime. After 20 days there was still nothing. Eventually, the original case officer granted her application and she got her visa but it was very last-minute."

Bresolin would like to see more specialist knowledge of his industry within INZ. "It would be good to have a case manager dedicated to hospitality, with more of a finger on the pulse."

At least 25 of the roles on INZ's Long Term Skill Shortage List are in ICT. Bennett Medary, chair of the New Zealand Information and Communications Technologies Group (NZICT), founded the Simpl Group and has strong opinions about skills shortages. The source of the problem, he says, isn't policy but execution.

"The government does research and creates policy but the policy outcomes fall far short of the goal or are in contradiction because there are so many layers of obstruction between policy-making, execution and reality."

Matthew Masters of advertising business Badger Communications has seen immigration both as a European migrant and an NZ employer hiring from overseas. He agreed with Medary about a failure to connect policy with small business needs. "Nobody in government wants to look at the entire issue from a policy perspective and ask what can be done to fix the whole problem because there's no willingness to consider big issues."

However, the perception among small businesses that sponsoring work visas is difficult and costly is wrong, he said. "When hiring a new account manager in from Hong Kong earlier this year, the immigration people made the process pretty easy for me. My only reservation was about the slightly intrusive nature of some of their questions. I can see why that is from a practical standpoint: they want to make sure it's a kosher job offer."

Aussie Malcolm is chairman of immigration advisory firm Malcolm Pacific. He served as Minister of Immigration during the third term of the Muldoon government and claims immigration is less effective now than it was then. In the 1980s immigration officers had job security.

"They were able to exercise discretion because they had a wealth of experience. Today, the typical immigration officer is under-skilled, undertrained, on short-term contract, still isn't paid very much but now has no job security, either."

He would like to see INZ loosen up and stop treating businesses with suspicion.

"Immigration sees the exploitative employers, bent recruitment agents, fraudulent immigration advisors. What it doesn't seem to have the ability to see is that, for the most part, those are aberrations to the general rule."

Representatives from Malcolm's firm Malcolm Pacific, ANZ Bank, Bayleys and PwC are currently visiting Malaysia, Singapore and Southeast Asia attempting to encourage investors to migrate to New Zealand.

But there's little point attracting more overseas talent to New Zealand when the country already has numerous skilled migrants unable to find work in their professions, said Medary. "There's recruitment and employment prejudice, particularly around foreign workers who may have a different first language," he says. "They go to the bottom of the pile."