Few New Zealanders do not know the Maori proverb “What is the most important thing in the world, it is the people, the people, the people / He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata he tangata he tangata. It’s true when things are going well, and it’s particularly true when things are difficult.

Right now, one of the key constraints across our food and grocery industry is a lack of people for key roles. It affects all levels, from leadership to more hands-on roles, such as picking and packing, and a lack of skill levels from expertise to lower skills roles.

Contrary to the misperception of some, food industry roles are not low-skilled. Companies work extremely hard to hold onto experienced food workers because they’re in short supply. During my time as CEO of the Food & Grocery Council, whenever there has been a factory closure or downsizing, workers are usually snapped up quickly by others.

In the global COVID environment, with our borders shut, the situation is different. We’ve always been a nation reliant on migrant workers, be it seasonally to support the horticulture or dairy industries, or on their OE, travelling and working their way around in hospitality or other part-time jobs.

Many FGC members have had a nightmare of a time maintaining production teams or recruiting sufficient numbers of seasonal workers for key times of the year. In some cases it’s resulted in higher costs, in others it’s meant lost opportunities that can’t be replaced.

It’s become clear how highly dependent New Zealand is on expertise from overseas. A good example is experts who come here to commission manufacturing kit worth millions of dollars and later to maintain it. That’s not something that can be done via Zoom or Teams with great effect.

Last year, the Government announced 10% of quarantine beds would be set aside for migrants with “essential skills”, but in practice this was hard to deliver, particularly when extra pressure from Kiwis’ Christmas travel created a further crush at the border.

Most would agree COVID will be around for some years. That being so, we need to get better at managing people flows and accept that despite best intentions to shift the long-term unemployed into food and grocery vacancies, it’s not going to be that easy or in some cases possible due to literacy and numeracy standards required for even the simplest factory roles.

There have been some positive Government initiatives, such as the approval of a further 200 dairy workers and the extension of some work visas, but the plans need to get ahead of the problems and provide solutions that are more enduring than just ad hoc approvals of small numbers here and there.

One idea could be to remove sanctions for university students who want to work more hours. Right now, a student can earn just $227 a week before their student allowance is affected. Some want to work more than 8 or 10 hours a week, and if they could take on more-economic part-time shifts it would release another pool of workers for our industry, as well as that of hospitality.

We also need to keep the pressure on regarding priority for workers with essential skills, and remind decision-makers of the importance of maintaining spaces in quarantine for them.

Finally, we need to seek significant improvement in our vaccination programme. New Zealand appears to be last in the OECD on vaccine rollout, and so far the Government has rebuffed support from private health providers that could whip around workplaces with the same efficiency they do in their corporate flu vaccine programmes.

It’s a time for thinking differently and considering all options to keep the wider food and grocery industry moving and exporting. But regardless of automation and other productivity gains, many constraints come back to people, people and people.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)