Mark Knoff-Thomas

Opinion: Mark Knoff-Thomas on hospo sector challenges

You will have seen various reports from around the country that our hospitality sector is facing severe shortages of workers. COVID border restrictions have exposed just how reliant the sector, and in fact our whole economy, is on the inflow of seasonal workers and permanent immigration. According to a Restaurant Association survey of its members, 92 per cent reported difficulty in recruiting for mid to senior skill-level positions. Prior to taking the reins in Newmarket I had over 10 years’ experience in the recruitment industry and have worked in candidate-short markets before, but what we are experiencing now is not just a shortage, it’s a paralysis. Many private sector industries are no longer in the position to be able to deliver services to normal levels, let alone grow, as they cannot hire the additional staff they need.

Some commentators have seen this as an opportunity to put the boot into hospitality leaders and claim the industry is exploitative and reliant on “cheap foreign labour”. I’m quite sure there are examples of businesses that exploit their workers, as there are in every sector. I’m always shocked at how long the process is to bring those business owners to account. Exploitative employers need to be called out and have the book thrown at them. However, I think too many people are lobbing grenades at the hospo industry as if it is the root of all evil – it absolutely isn’t. In my experience, Newmarket’s hospitality sector is dynamic, on a strong growth trajectory creating hundreds of new jobs, and our employers pay decent wages and offer stability and career pathways. Many pay considerably higher than the living wage for junior roles; offer leadership training and development programmes; and are in it for the long haul. New Zealand has woken up to the fact that our hospitality sector is one in which you can be a true professional, enjoy a long career and become a specialist in your chosen area. It is fantastic to see this evolving.

There is also a place for hospitality workers who are more temporary in nature. For generations, this country has been part of a global network of countries where casual workers have been able to combine work and travel with their OE (overseas experience). Many of you reading this will have done the pilgrimage to London for example, and quite possibly spent time working in bars, cafes and restaurants. This country has historically welcomed young people from across the globe for the same reason. The industry needs a pipeline of talent to keep it viable. When unemployment is as low as it is the local talent options can be very limited, and highly likely not “work ready”.

Our government’s revised immigration policy is making the situation worse. Why on earth they have been so slow to see this is perplexing. Obviously we are learning how we can live with the ongoing pandemic, but why – when there is interest to come here, an urgent local demand, and at various times an abundance of slots available in MIQ, are we not joining the dots? I tend to tread a very politically-agnostic pathway in my role and work successfully with politicians across the political spectrum. Over the years I have had need to engage at ministerial levels, and none more so than on behalf of the Newmarket Business Association. It’s fair to say that the Ardern government will go down in history as “Fortress New Zealand” in more ways than one. Ministers just don’t engage. I initially thought it was arrogance, but it’s increasingly becoming obvious that maybe they just don’t have the answers.

To keep up to speed with announcements on what’s happening, keep an eye on @newmarketnz.

See you here soon,

Mark Knoff-Thomas
CEO, Newmarket Business Association

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