Opinion: Low unemployment a chance to reset job market

"Where have all the workers gone?"

Cafe worker (file picture).

It's a cry echoing across the world, from the scorching beaches and bars of Spain and Portugal to the freezing ski fields at Cardrona.

When the latest Household Labour Force Survey - our measure of the (un)employment rate - comes out on Wednesday morning, it's expected to show another drop from the record low 3.2%. In another sign of the times, expect to see wages continue to rise, although not at the sky-high levels of inflation.

It's another lingering effect of the pandemic. A report into the construction industry this week found 91% of businesses can't find the skilled workers they so desperately need. Auckland Airport had 3500 people turn up to its job fair, and employers hired hundreds of them on the spot.

Every day we hear employers calling out for more migrants, and in some cases, for salary requirements to be eased. That could lead to lower wages in some sectors.

The Productivity Commission was established in 2010 to look at ways to improve productivity in New Zealand. It was an acknowledgement of Aotearoa's long-standing problem with productivity and low wages. It's not a new trend to see young Kiwis race across the ditch for the sun, higher wages and better job opportunities - the opening up of the world at this stage of the pandemic has just compounded it.

So it's a question New Zealand needs to confront. Do we use this 'unprecedented' event to reset our economy and our labour market? Do we want to continue to rely on migrants and low wages and poor conditions? Or do we say, let's compete with those higher wages and bright lights of big cities and show what New Zealand has to offer?

The hospitality industry has been one of the hardest-hit. As workers pick and choose where they want to work, that choice hasn't been to continue slogging it out behind a bar for low pay, long unsociable hours and sometimes bad working conditions. The industry has been forced to look at itself, as shown by the Restaurant Association's decision to launch its new HospoCred scheme. A cafe owner told 1News last week the pandemic gives him a chance to "reset" his business and encourages others to do the same.

In New Zealand, we win when it comes to the lifestyle on offer. But let's have a conversation about resetting how we think about the labour market. It's not just salaries - we're already seeing wage inflation of over 3%. It's about working conditions, flexible hours, training people in the right jobs, making a workplace attractive and ensuring employees feel valued and have opportunities.

As another employer told 1News, if workers are happy, it'll only add value to their business.

There's no doubt it's tough for employers out there. But the borders have slowly creaked open. As a nation, we love competing on the world stage and winning gold - let's do the same when it comes to our workforce.