Posted on April 25, 2007

Migrants Firm’s Secret Weapon

Simon Collins, New Zealand Herald, April 26, 2007

A big Auckland-based multinational says that hiring migrants has given it an international competitive advantage.

Beca, the country’s biggest New Zealand-owned engineering consulting firm, has grown from 1091 staff in 2002 to 1730 last year, with offices in New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, China, United Arab Emirates, Britain, Brazil, Chile and the US.

Its technical director for transportation, Matthew Ensor, says the company’s New Zealand-based staff are now multinational too. In his division, 26 out of 45 staff were born overseas.

“We couldn’t have grown as we have without them. There are not enough skilled people in New Zealand to allow that,” he said yesterday.

“All our competitors are crying and shouting that there is no skilled labour available. For us, it’s a good indicator that we are taking advantage of skilled talent.”

When Mr Ensor took over transportation three years ago, the division had just one Asian face and one woman. Today it has 19 people born here, six from India, five from Britain, four from Hong Kong, two from Bangladesh, and one each from Australia, Burma, China, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. Seventeen of the 45 are women.

That’s not counting seven interns from India who spend 10 weeks with the company every winter and a similar number from New Zealand universities in summer.

Mr Ensor estimates that the overseas recruits have earned the company $20 million to $30 million collectively in those three years.

Seventeen of his 26 foreign-born recruits were hired here. Donna Liu, 28, for example, came from China in 2003 to do her master’s degree at Auckland University, and stayed.

“At that time it was really easy to get a visa in New Zealand. I thought it would take a long time to get a visa for other countries,” she said.

“I’m quite happy staying here. All my family are in China, but last year my parents came here to visit me and they felt it was quite a nice country.” They may join her here permanently.

Dian Witono, 23, transferred from Melbourne University to Auckland four years ago because her parents had already migrated here. “I feel more safe here. Everything is stable and the people are nice,” she said.

“I’m going to stay here for a while, but if there is an opportunity out there [overseas], I want to go forward.”

Mr Ensor said a fifth to a third of his division’s Auckland-based work is on overseas projects and it helps to have people from those countries in the team.

“What we are doing is building diversity into the company,” he said.

“For example, we don’t do any traffic work in China at the moment, but our strategy is to grow leaders here. Donna is here now so that in 10 years time she will be a leader here and that will give us the opportunity to open up [the Chinese traffic market].”

New kiwis finally getting a share of the pie

New immigrants are finally sharing in New Zealand’s strong labour market, thanks partly to tighter rules on who can come here.

A Labour Department study of new immigrants who arrived in the past two years has found that the proportion on welfare benefits dropped from 6.7 per cent in June 2001 to just 2.3 per cent last Junefar less than the New Zealand average of 11.3 per cent of the working-age population.

Immigration Minister David Cunliffe said the dramatic improvement reflected a policy shift towards selecting “employable” migrants, as well as the strong economy.

Previous policies, based on skills and qualifications, notoriously led to migrants with doctorates in medicine or engineering being unable to get jobs in their fields and ending up driving taxis in Auckland.

The new points-based system gives a high loading to having a job. The result is that among skilled and business migrants, who account for 61 per cent of all residence approvals, the proportion on a benefit in their first two years has dropped from 1.3 per cent to a negligible 0.4 per cent.

Family-sponsored migrants, who account for 30 per cent of residence approvals, saw their benefit rate drop from 4.5 per cent to 1.9 per cent.

The only category where benefit rates remain high is the international/humanitarian stream, mainly refugees, and the Samoan and Pacific access quotas, who account for 9 per cent of immigrants. Their benefit rates dropped by two-thirds from 51.9 per cent in 2001 to 17.4 per cent.

Within this group, the benefit rate for refugees rose, from 57 per cent to 62 per cent. RMS Refugee Resettlement national co-ordinator Jenni Broom said New Zealand’s annual refugee quota was targeted to help those in greatest need of refuge, and many had limited skills or English on arrival.

“Language acquisition needs to be matched with appropriate employment opportunities,” she said.

The benefit rate remains highest, at 79 per cent, among the 750 refugees selected every year under New Zealand’s United Nations quota. In recent years they have come mainly from Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Burma.

The benefit rate is lower, 43 per cent, for those who came by themselves and claimed asylum on arrival. But asylum-seekers have declined from 311 in 2000-01 to 67 in the year to last June.

The report also shows benefit rates for those who arrived in the previous five years fell from 82 per cent in 2001 to 68 per cent for quota refugees, and from 27 per cent to 29 per cent for asylum-seekers.