Michael Barnett, Chief Executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Photo / Provided
The one thing I’ve noticed over the past year is that there are many who are critical of the government’s response, but not too many who are willing to offer solutions or alternatives.
The Chamber and the EMA are professional organizations which I believe have been successful. We listen to our members; we find out what they need and we provide suggestions and solutions to the government to adapt the support. We have shown that we are in touch and in tune with what is happening in the real world.
Covid gave us a shock. It showed us that there are realities that we have to face.
In our lifetime we have never had to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude, so there are no experts despite claims by some in government, bureaucrats and academics as they formulated interventions, protections and restrictions.
But have we talked enough? Probably not. Had we consulted more broadly, included a wider range of voices, and encouraged true collaboration, we could have maximized outcomes and lessened the pain inflicted on lives and livelihoods.
As we prepare to recover, we also need to make sure that Omicron and whatever its Covid cousins throw at us don’t frame the future.
The government is responsible for putting in place the platform to support and drive the recovery. My plea is to do so only after genuine consultation with businesses, including the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises that form the backbone of the national economy. We can provide expertise, ideas, resources and constructive solutions.
Let’s start by changing the narrative. It was tense and stressed us out. It’s all about red lights, stop signs, checkpoints, don’t do this, creepy, fluctuating case counts, and a dim hope that Omicron’s downhill will be sooner, faster, and furious. – and rapid antigen testing and sensitive isolation rules will save the day for some, if not all, SMEs in serious conflict.
We want a new story that isn’t shot and isn’t about fear and failure, uncertainty and disruption. It must highlight the cultures of recovery, sustainability, tenacity, innovation, courage and drive to remind us what success looks like.
We need to listen to the good news and not exist in an environment shadowed by a narrow and pessimistic view of New Zealand. There are sectors and people that are working well and creating jobs, new businesses and export income for the benefit of all New Zealanders. Seek them out, find out what they did differently and better, and apply the learnings to benefit recovery.
Our primary sector has witnessed booming exports, agile workarounds from private companies keep supply chains running and commerce moving, the huge shift towards digital solutions and e-commerce are positive developments that allowed us to cross.
Our adoption of robots, robotics and automation is changing the way many industries operate to increase productivity, service experiences and efficiency. This new way and redesign of business processes will accelerate and reduce our reliance on cheap labor.
Major economic indicators remain sound by international standards despite global inflation, labor shortages and shipping disruptions.
The government came to the party for business, and we have to recognize that, but now it’s up to us to be ready for success and to write our own stories.
Soon our borders will open to skilled migrants and essential workers whose numbers are now needed to fill labor shortages. There is an opportunity to change the narrative here too. We need to identify the critical skills, capabilities and workforce needed to fuel the long-term recovery, help our sectors and industries continue to succeed, and sustain basic services. Technology, healthcare, education, agribusiness, manufacturing, communications and others all need additional skills to align with revamped and redesigned operating systems to create growth.
If businesses show how ready they are for a reimagined future, we will attract the skills, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators to support New Zealand in new sectors and create opportunities.
For too long, our immigration metrics have been skewed to support short-term solutions – the seasonal worker, the two-year work visa, or a quick rotation contract on a work permit. Only highly qualified, experienced and remunerated, or wealthy, potential investors top the list to become permanent residents or citizens. For others, even with experience working in the production, service and export sectors in New Zealand, it’s a lottery, a revolving door, and we lose their skills.
We want an immigration policy that recruits, retains and builds capacity to build the future. We are challenged to fill the jobs available now and a potential brain drain looms as our youngest and brightest head to their delayed EO. We need to rethink how we value jobs beyond an hourly rate to consider their contribution to productivity, continuous improvement, and the revolution that will take place in factories with new ways of operating.
Part of the labor and skills supply management plan should harness talent beyond school dropouts. We could, for example, offer longer-term work visas to workers with critical and in-demand skills, and be more proactive in encouraging and promoting the benefits to a company if it hires more apprentices. The government, through the Department of Social Development, could subsidize apprentices and support a framework to manage the apprenticeship program so that it is business-friendly. It would be a win for all parties – apprentice, entrepreneur and government in delivering social results.
Recovery requires real leadership, pragmatism and an unobstructed platform for businesses to take the leap and lead national and regional economic recovery.
Investments in national assets and infrastructure upgrades must be redesigned so that they are delivered faster, better and more efficiently, whether designing a port for the future, a road or rail link . We need to remove onerous, time-consuming and costly consent processes. We need water, land and other natural assets to be managed more efficiently in the age of climate change and we need to prioritize access for all to essential services in health, safety, housing and education. For businesses, more short-term solutions and stimuli will be needed to get us through the worst of our recovery.
Time matters. The fruits are not picked. Patients don’t fix themselves. Buildings must be constructed.
Trucks need drivers. IT-dependent businesses need programmers and expertise at all levels. Jobs are in demand everywhere. Apprentices are future professionals. School leavers need jobs, skills and abilities other than reading, writing and arithmetic. There are so many things we can do; the challenge is to do it better than ever.
The government wants us to be nice, and we will, but it’s time to live with Covid and live on.
Pride and prejudice eliminated with the first steps
We’re all in this together has been the Covid slogan, so be kind and take care of each other.
But as the tentacles of Covid slithered deep into the community and restrictions ranging from lockdowns to vaccination mandates took hold, tens of thousands of owner-run small and medium-sized businesses lost their lives.
Kindness would not reduce it, nor support packages to keep jobs and business going.
Another silent pandemic was indiscriminately sweeping over business owners and executives.
Pride and prejudice have kept normally capable and confident business leaders from talking about something they would normally ignore and never share – their fragile mental health and well-being. But as levels of anxiety, stress, anger, grief, fear, pessimism, depression, aggression, introspection, loss of confidence, control, motivation and abuse of alcohol increased, it became a deafening chorus, an SOS to which the Chamber and the EMA could respond. .
Supported and funded by the government, https://firststeps.nz/ was launched to provide easy access to practical self-help tools and expertise for business owners. It was a success and an example of the government’s openness to tailor-made solutions.
Since its launch at the end of December, more than 20,000 visits have been recorded on the website with more than 10,000 resources downloaded and used by entrepreneurs who are taking their first steps. They realized that they had to take care of themselves if they were to take care of their staff, their families and their communities.
As a leader, responsible for people, revenue and operations, it is up to you to have all the answers, but the reality is that Covid offers untenable uncertainty and tension.
It should be comforting to a business owner or manager in this area to know that you are not alone and that there is help at hand.
Recognizing that stress and its effects on behavior and feelings of well-being is not stigma.
Other business leaders are in the same situation, also feeling depressed, failed, overwhelmed, anxious and burnt out, drinking too much, lashing out at family with unusual outbursts and upsetting the relationships that matter.
The big problem is to fix it.
• Auckland Business Chamber is a sponsor of the Dynamic Business Report