Feature article

Why’s the South Island doing so well for jobs?

Job listings are down across the country but some key South Island cities have remained remarkably resilient.

Job listings are down across the country but some key South Island regions have remained remarkably resilient. What’s making them stay so buoyant?

Despite the cooling economy, Trade Me’s State of the Nation report for September 2023 highlighted the continued strong employment markets in the South Island, with both West Coast and Southland seeing average salaries rise by 5% in the year to July 2023.

According to recruiters on the ground, some employers are behaving cautiously in light of the recession and the election, but they supported the Trade Me research findings. Skilled workers across sectors including trades and services, hospitality and tourism, roading and construction and transport and logistics were still being actively wooed and targeted, they said. And job applicants were coming from other parts of the country and some from overseas too.

As well as leading the way on average salary rises, the West Coast is also the region that has experienced the smallest decrease in job listings (-2%).

What is it about the West Coast?

The Te Tai Poutini West Coast, with towns like Greymouth, Hokitika, Westport, and Reefton (total population of 32,600) certainly isn’t the largest NZ job market, but employers in the region are continuing to hire in a range of sectors and offering very competitive salaries.

Because it’s a bit more remote, companies know that they have to pay the same rate as applicants would be paid in the main cities, and, in fact, sometimes, they’ll pay a little bit more, according to local recruiters.

Epic Recruitment Consulting Director, Emily Peacock, says work in the area tends to be associated with mining and anything to do with primary industry, for instance, production, factories, dairy (the area has a huge dairy sector) and other agricultural businesses. The biggest demand for workers is coming from Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport, she says.

Big employers currently hiring in the area include Silver Fern Farms, Westland Milk Products and mining company, Bathurst Resources.

Employers have to sell the lifestyle to candidates, says Emily. Big companies will pay a regional bonus because of the relative isolation. The recruitment consultant, who grew up in the area, says the cost of living, the cost of homes, and the wages make the West Coast very appealing.

“It’s definitely a great location if you’re into the outdoors, and want hunting, fishing and kayaking on your doorstep,” she says.

The Epic Recruitment Director also says that the West Coast isn’t that remote in reality. It’s two and half hours from Christchurch and only an hour and a half from Nelson, she points out..

Another recruiter for the area, Alice Moynihan, Training and Recruitment Coordinator for Development West Coast, describes the West Coast job market as quite fluid at the moment, with employers still hiring in every area, not just the primary industry. This spans from the health sector, education, the trades, engineers, mechanics and also admin, payroll and HR, says Alice.

Businesses are still booming, says Alice. She’s just taken her car to be serviced and was told by the garage they were flat tack for the next few days.

The restaurants are busy, too, she comments. The former Wellingtonian, who lives in Reefton, 80 km from Greymouth, says her town is a great place to live.

Hospitality is another important area of recruitment in this beautiful part of New Zealand and Alice says now that people can come in from overseas on working visas, vacancies are being filled. “It was really hard before this,” she says.

Southland salaries have risen by 5%

Southland was another one of the three areas in the country to have the biggest increase in average salaries (up 5%) in Trade Me’s latest State of the Nation report.

OneStaff Southland Area Manager, Sonja Cowan says the area’s job market, which was very busy last year, swung toward the other side of the pendulum in late February/March this year. Big construction projects in the Invercargill CBD have come to an end and there’s a waiting period while new work emerges, she says.

However,there continues to be a huge candidate shortage for skills across the board from the trades, like electricians, and engineers, says Sonja. She’s working with offshore recruiters to bring in skilled workers from the UK, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Like the West Coast, Southland sells itself in a number of ways to Kiwi looking to relocate and to internationals – the cost of living, housing affordability and so much more, says Sonja. “It’s about not having to sit in traffic, and there’s so much to do on our doorstep,” she says.

With the country currently in recession, Southland businesses are behaving conservatively, which is good business acumen, she says. Southland as a province puts its money away for rainy days, so, when a recession comes, they just ride it out, explains Sonja.

But as Spring arrives, the Southland area manager expects more work to start up. “We’re on the cusp of getting into roading and transport programmes coming into summer. We have projects coming up, the civil aspect of things are really significant here,” she says.

While Q1 of the financial year saw a pause, the last six to eight weeks things have started to spring back, agrees Keir Morrison, Business Manager at Enterprise Recruitment in Invercargill.

The recruiter says while there’s been a slowdown in building and construction in Southland that seems to be turning around with more medium and intermediate jobs coming through. A former government building in Invercargill is being refurbished and transformed into a new Distinction hotel due to open later in 2024, for instance.

There are, meanwhile, some great opportunities in temporary positions at the moment, with roles in all sectors, he adds. There’s a lot of demand for business services and admin assistants at the moment. And permanent recruitment is starting to come, he comments.

Meanwhile, the message is getting out there about the advantages of living and working in Southland. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more applications from out of the region, more inquiry from other centres in New Zealand, people interested in moving south in light of weather and natural disasters, and the more affordable housing on offer in Southland.”

The Southern Impact: An overview on the wider South Island

National recruitment firm, Hays has offices in Christchurch and Dunedin in the South Island and recruits all over the mainland, covering a number of sectors from construction to civil engineering.

Hays NZ CEO David Trollope agrees that as well as Southland and the West Coast, the South Island is proving to be quite resilient - although the number of strong candidates actively looking for a role is low, he notes.

While the South Island does have a smaller economy than the North, relatively speaking, there are still exciting opportunities available, says David. It’s fairly resilient, but the skills shortage is the biggest challenge and has resulted in a tight candidate market in the South.

In the construction and property space, the residential market has shifted to focus on renovations over new builds, with a few companies hiring in this area. The commercial side remains reasonably strong, he adds.

At the moment, Nelson is particularly busy across both residential and commercial construction, with high-end residential work and winery projects going ahead, says the Hays CEO. Queenstown, meanwhile, is steady with a few employers hiring and there’s a strong focus across Otago, particularly central and Dunedin, he says.

New Zealand-qualified or NZ-skilled carpenters, quantity surveyors and estimators from intermediate to senior level, and commercial project managers, are also in high demand in the South Island, he says.

Within civil engineering, Hays is seeing more available candidates though the volume of suitable candidates is lower.

“As we head into spring, roading planning is in the works and vacancy activity is expected to increase,” says David.

Skilled operators and truck drivers are in high demand to meet Three Waters work, along with project managers and site engineers with marine and water infrastructure experience, he says. Qualified drainlayers are also needed.

Applications are up after a quiet time

VIPeople Staffing and Recruitment branch manager, Louise Karataua, a recruitment specialist based in Christchurch says things are changing. VIPeople covers civil engineering construction, trade services, office and sales. A couple of months ago, it was very quiet, especially in the temp industrial area but permanent roles have now increased, says Louise.

Applications are up, she says. An advert for a call centre role attracted over 800 applications, 30 of those from overseas. A lot of the applicants were North Islanders, she says.

In another job listing, she had 198 people apply for a butcher’s role, some of the applicants were butchers, some weren’t.

Among permanent roles, trade sector roles like electricians, plumbers, diesel mechanics are always in demand, says Louise. And, interestingly, a number of people with IT backgrounds were applying for general roles.

VIPeople attracts a lot of applicants from overseas as an accredited company for the Accredited Employer Work Visa and of its recruits for civil construction building, 50% are from overseas and 50% from New Zealand, the branch manager estimates..

Locations like Christchurch and Queenstown as either famine or feast areas, says Franklin Smith recruitment consultant Chelsea McKellar, based in Christchurch. “At the moment, we have eight quantity surveyor roles we’re still trying to fill so the work is still there,” she says.

There’s been a slowdown, especially in residential, but commercial is hanging in there, she says. And, in another 12-18 months, there will be projects like Christchurch’s Metro Sports Facility to keep a lot of contractors busy and the larger rest homes are employing a lot of sub-contractors, says the recruiter. The Ministry of Education is also creating work, the second campus of Rolleston High School, is a big $170 million project, for instance.

A lot of people are applying from overseas but employers aren’t typically looking to hire from outside the country. If they’re already here, they might consider it but it depends on what types of projects they’ve worked on, says Chelsea.

More work to come in Dunedin

In Dunedin, as well as the new hospital, there will be a number of associated new buildings from apartments, car parking and other accommodation,says Andy Knight, Principal Consultant at Stellar Recruitment. The industry is gearing up for this to kick off at the back end of this year, he adds.

“From construction to sub-trades, there are only 20 carpet and vinyl layers in Dunedin, and when you think of how many kilometres of vinyl (and carpet) is to be laid, that won’t be enough. It will take huge resources to build.” says the recruiter.

Stellar Recruitment senior consultant, Christoper Ryder, who’s hiring in roading, drainage and infrastructure, says when Dunedin hospital kicks off, it will be a game changer. “We’ll need 1000 people on that site.”

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