Landscapers and plant producers wanting to expand their businesses are frustrated with the difficulty in finding employees as a shortage of migrants collides with a dearth of apprentices
After 2020’s lockdown ended, construction and house sales boomed – as did demand for builders, tradespeople and landscaping staff.
Inspired by what he described as “record difficulties sourcing staff” for NZ businesses, economist Tony Alexander conducted a survey in late June in which he gathered feedback from more than 1,000 respondents about recruitment and retention challenges. One landscaping business told Alexander that, desperate to retain his hard-to-replace staff, he has had to fork out for perks such as coffee, snacks, after-work beers and an all-expenses paid trip to Fieldays. “I’m paying the unskilled guys more than they are worth, but I need them,” the landscaper said.
NZ Plant Producers CEO Matthew Dolan, whose $1bn industry has 4,000 workers across forestry, gardening, retail, indigenous plantations and nurseries, told NZ Landscaper his industry’s expansion is constrained due to an under-supply of staff – though the problem pre-dates Covid.
While the shortage has been deepening for a decade, the timing of Covid “couldn’t be worse” considering the boom in demand for urban landscaping exacerbated by lockdowns worldwide.
“The shortage was becoming intense, but Covid was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dolan said. “Without access to skilled overseas workers, we were found to be well short.”
Nursery workers are not prioritised by Immigration New Zealand, compounding the effect of the existing shortage on several industries, including landscaping.
HortNZ Chief Executive Nadine Tunley says the problem is worse for the horticulture industry. Tunley told NZ Landscaper
immigration restrictions were so bad during the March-May 2021 apple and kiwifruit harvests that the industry was found to be 11,500 seasonal workers short.
Feeling staff shortage firsthand
RML chairperson Robert Luijten has been feeling the same frustrations as horticulturalists and other landscapers – and similar expenses, too. As owner of Luijten Landscaping – which has 35 staff – Luijten says he has to have permanent job recruitment ads running to widen the net to find new staff – and those applying often seem to lack the skills required.
“We are at a point where people are not keen to move from
their current jobs,” he said.
He believes the reasons for the lack of landscapers are an intersection of border closures turning off the tap of migrant workers, short-sighted immigration rules, plus New Zealanders aren’t really interested in a career in landscaping.
One of the most unhelpful situations Luijten’s South Auckland business has dealt with is three staff being pulled across the border to Waikato because their visas ran out. “Their immigration lawyer advised them they would get more visa points by moving out of Auckland,” Luijten said.
“One guy had to move, then was allowed to come back and work with us again. But two others, who we invested in training for three years, are now living and working in Hamilton. It’s really bizarre.”
Luijten says another example involves an excellent Filipino concreter, who came to NZ to help out with the Christchurch rebuild. After six years, the company he worked for ran out of work, so he was asked to move to Auckland. Unfortunately, Immigration NZ told him he wasn’t allowed to work there.
“We offered him a job as he had all the skills we needed, but Immigration NZ said he had to go back to the Philippines because they didn’t have concreters on their Skills Shortage list – that was the thanks he got!
“Another guy I know recruited 15 pool builders from the Philippines, but they’ve had to move to another business due to visa restrictions, so he’s lost them.”
Luijten believes the other cause of the low supply of workers is industry training failing to prepare apprentices for the realities of being on site in a physically demanding role.
“I don’t believe the government is really listening to the landscaping industry as to what shortages we are actually experiencing on the ground. They are removed from reality.”
Meanwhile, a consequence of the worker shortage is Luijten Landscaping has to use some subcontractors – which still doesn’t allow his business to expand.
“Hopefully by 2022, there might be an easing of restrictions. I don’t like to be negative, and having a healthy workload is a good position to be in – but can I see the worker shortage changing in the next 12 months? Not really.”