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Loss of skilled trades workers is threatening NZ with economic crisis, experts warn.

The face of the exodus to Australia is changing as skilled trade workers in their 20s replace young, well-educated Kiwis flocking to Australia.

Ten years ago, New Zealand was hit by a brain drain; now young tradespeople are chasing jobs and larger pay packets in Australia in a migration dubbed the “trades drain”.

And academics have warned that if the loss of trained workers and qualified professionals – who are still leaving in their thousands – continues, the country’s economy will suffer.

In one year, more than 17,600 people aged between 20 and 29 moved to Australia.

Most were in the “technicians and trades workers” and “professionals” categories, according to figures prepared for the Herald by Statistics New Zealand.

A spokeswoman for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), Louisa Jones, said New Zealand was in a job crisis.

“Earlier in the decade, we were talking about the brain drain and saying we don’t want our educated, skilled professionals going offshore.

“But now we’re seeing a different type of drain, the trades drain. We’re seeing people who directly contribute to our economy in a physical way now leaving. It’s a dangerous game.”

People have been leaving New Zealand in increasing numbers, especially in the 20-29 age group.

In 2002, more than 26,700 people went to Australia – 8.9 per cent of them professionals, 7.6 per cent service and sales workers and 4.1 per cent trades workers.

In the 12 months to June this year, a record 53,763 people left. Professionals made up 11 per cent of that number and technicians and trades workers 9 per cent.

But in the 20-29 age bracket, technicians and trades workers were leaving in the greatest numbers – making up 14.4 per cent of the total.

Carpenter Saan Barratt, 33, lived in Australia about 10 years ago, and is getting ready to return. He is looking forward to higher wages and being held in higher regard.

“The standard of work is higher – and, of course, you get paid for it,” he said. “Anyone with a hammer here can be a carpenter, or at least assume the premise of being one.”

Mr Barratt said it would probably take until the end of summer to save enough for the move.

“The only reason I came back was for friends and family. It would be much better if everyone I knew moved with me.”

The building industry was in a downward spiral, Mr Barratt said.

Lack of apprenticeships was leading to lack of skills, lack of recognition for any skill, and lack of wages commensurate with it.

Ms Jones, the EPMU’s national organiser for manufacturing and engineering, said the effect of the global financial crisis on manufacturing, the high New Zealand dollar hurting a lot of exporting businesses, and the Australian mining boom contributed to the loss of trades workers.

If the Government didn’t act soon to support manufacturing industries, she said, the economy could collapse.

“If we continue to not be involved and allow jobs to drift offshore and skilled people to leave New Zealand, we’ll be a country that doesn’t have manufacturing.

“And we know that manufacturing jobs are at the centre of an economy with a whole lot of other jobs directly dependent on them.”

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister John Key said the traditional OE was “a big part of young New Zealanders’ lives … Going overseas means people can learn new skills and have new experiences”.

“We want those New Zealanders to bring their skills home, too. That’s why the Government is working hard to build a more competitive economy based on exports and higher savings, helping create sustainable, higher-paying jobs.”

But research scientist Shaun Hendy said he was concerned about the high number of educated New Zealand professionals who were leaving for Australia.

“The fact that it’s getting worse is quite alarming,” he said.

A shortage of jobs was partly to blame for the exodus, but that could be fixed by the Government giving more research grants to encourage economical growth, said Dr Hendy, a professor of physics at Victoria University in Wellington.

By Amelia Wade, NZ Hearld


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