Recent graduates and post-study work visa holders who are currently stuck overseas and locked out of closed borders are urging the government to let them in the country as the much needed "critically skilled workers" in the infrastructure sector.
New Zealand borders continue to remain closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the community with only a small category of workers being allowed in the country, including "critically skilled workers."
The post-study work visa holders, open work visa holders, and other categories of work visa holders who were ordinarily resident in the country before being locked out of closed borders remains out of the ambit of government's immediate priority.
Recently, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has reiterated that post-study work visa holders, who had earlier completed their studies in New Zealand and were working on post-study work visas were not the government's immediate priority to be allowed back in the country.
However, many such post-study work visa holders are hoping that the government's simultaneous focus on spurring infrastructure growth to boost the post-Covid economic recovery, might make their skills and work experience, critically required in the country.
Thagath Shah – a New Zealand educated engineer who was in his dream job of highway engineer in Waikato Expressway Hamilton project before travelling overseas on a short holiday, bemoans why workers like him who have everything that aligns with government's current thinking on managing economy are not being allowed back in the country.
"We understand that the government is tightly managing borders and aligning with the pressures on the Managed isolation & Quarantine facilities before allowing temporary visa holders like us back in the country," Shah said.
"But the government has made provisions to allow critically skilled workers in the country and earmarked an additional 10 per cent spaces in MIQ facilities to help in skill shortage in key sectors of the economy and many post-study work visa holders were already working in those critically important sectors," Shah said.
He came to New Zealand in 2017 studying Level 7 Graduate Diploma in Highway Technology, before starting his job with Higgins contractors Waikato in Quality Assurance and operations – a job that his employer is still willing to offer him if he can return back to the country.
"I have a letter of Company that they are supporting me in this situation. I've tried for an exception, but every time it got declined just because I'm holding a Post Study Open Work Visa. And there are no border exception criteria for Post Study Open Work Visa Holder," Shah said.
"It is strange that I have lived in the country for more than three years, invested a lot of money for a course in the long-term skill shortage area worked on a major government project and still it doesn't mean anything to the government," Shah said exasperatingly.
Mohammed Razal, who has been in NZ since 2016, first to study Graduate Diploma in Highway Technology, followed by full-time work as a civil engineering technician in Waikato expressway Hamilton on post-study work visa also remains locked out of NZ borders.
He has temporarily returned back home as he was injured in an accident and had no one here to provide care.
"I always thought that I had studied in areas of long term skill shortage and was working in the infrastructure sector, so I would be in the front of the queue [to be allowed to travel] as soon as normalcy returns immediately after the lockdown in March-April," Razal said.
Govt's big push on infrastructure sector for post-Covid economic recovery
Notably, the government has earmarked a NZ$ 3 billion portion from the country's COVID Response and Recovery Fund to invest in infrastructure plans and is relying on an enhanced activity in the sector to boost the post-Covid economy.
The government is aiming to kick-start the post-Covid rebuild by creating more than 20,000 jobs and unlocking more than $5 billion of projects up and down New Zealand.
Building infrastructure is a key component of the government's economic recovery plan as it sees it as providing a much-needed economic stimulus.
Acute skill shortage in the infrastructure sector
However, experts remain, at best cautiously optimistic, if not outrightly sceptical, about the skill shortage facing in the infrastructure sector.
Hamish Glenn of Infrastructure New Zealand, the country's highly respected, peak infrastructure body (non-government, advocacy) told the Indian Weekender that there was an acute shortage of skilled workforce within the infrastructure sector.
"The skills shortage is acutely affecting the construction industry with many specialised roles dependent on international labour affected. This has the dual effect of slowing down the delivery of existing projects and reducing the confidence companies tendering for work have in their ability to source the necessary skills," Glenn said.
"The impact on construction productivity is difficult to measure at this stage, but there is little doubt that the shortage of specialised skills in such a high demand work environment is putting upward pressure on wages," Glenn added.
Govt's current regime for critically skilled workers does not allow post-study work visa holders
The current border-regime of allowing "critically skilled workers" into the country is vastly different in design and substance and does not allow post-study work visas for any exception to enter the country.
It is employer-driven, unlike post-study work visa holders, where employers have to file employee's visas and get approval from Immigration NZ.
Post-study work visa holders, on the other hand, are on a "study plus work visa" package designed by most immigrant attracting countries to attract international students.
While post-study work visas offer one to three years of work rights depending on the level of studies completed in NZ, the post-Covid introduced critically skilled work visa category only offers six months of work rights.
In the absence of any clarity from the government, post-study work visa holders are reluctant and apprehensive of seeking to apply for the exception under the narrow category of "critically skilled work visa," for obvious reasons.