New Zealand Herald
April 26, 2008

Steve Hart

Justin Treagus knows all too well the issues migrants face when moving to New Zealand for a new life. He spent months out of work due to his lack of “Kiwi experience” when he first arrived. He says it’s a phrase many migrant job hunters hear.

Treagus, who is South African and spent time working in Britain before moving to Auckland in 2005, says the term “Kiwi experience” is sometimes justified. But he says it is frequently a disguise for discrimination.

“Recruiters and employers will say they want someone with Kiwi experience, which is their polite way of saying they only want to employ a New Zealander,” says Treagus. “At other times it is risk aversion – they just don’t want to risk taking on someone because of the strong labour laws we have. It can be very difficult to move someone out of a role.”

Treagus says in Britain and South Africa most job contracts have a probationary period built in. So either party can call it quits within the probationary time with little in the way of legal comebacks.

“It took me six months to get my first job in New Zealand,” he says. “When I arrived I thought it would be a breeze to get a job. It was very frustrating.”

But Treagus is using his experience to head up a new organisation that will help migrants into work, helping them get the Kiwi experience that may be holding them back and providing business mentors to help ease them into the culture and an all-important job. But not just any job – a job that fits their skill, experience, qualification and career ambitions.

Funded with money from the Tindall Foundation and supported by the cream of the country’s big businesses, the Omega organisation is a not-for-profit foundation based on a similar scheme being run successfully in Canada.

The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council was launched in 2003 and has helped hundreds of people into jobs.

Treagus says while the Toronto scheme has a good grasp on the issues facing migrants moving to Canada, it is impossible to say how big the issues are here. Not enough research has been done.

“The Canadians have done quite a lot of research on migrant discrimination and have estimated that the cost of under-employment of migrants costs the country about C$3 billion to C$5 billion ($3.7 billion to $6.2 billion) a year.

“Their research also shows that it takes migrants up to 10 years to reach pay parity with their native counterparts. So they have some fairly compelling statistics.”

Treagus says there doesn’t appear to be corresponding statistics here because the Government only records employment and unemployment.

So if a brain surgeon gets a job stacking supermarket shelves they are deemed to have successfully settled.

Since taking on the job of programme director for Omega, Treagus says he has been blown away by the stories he’s been told by migrants desperate for a job.

“One person has been in the country for three months, sent out 300 CVs and not had a single interview,” he says.

“And when unemployment is sitting at 3 per cent, then it means something is wrong.

“We have this paradox that businesses are, on one hand, crying out for staff. On the other, they are not willing to take a chance on the migrant talent pool that is sitting in front of them. So our response to that is that we will help minimise that risk.”

Treagus says Omega is a business-led initiative supported by large corporates such as Vodafone, Deloitte, Air New Zealand, Fulton Hogan and ANZ, to name a few.

“We feel that if we can change the way big companies hire people, then that will trickle down to small companies throughout New Zealand,” says Treagus.

“The main issues are that migrants are not getting jobs because they have no local experience. That is a big thing over here – without a Kiwi reference on your CV getting a job can be very hard.

“Migrants also face a discounting of their qualifications and a discounting of their work experience. If anyone wants to find out how big the issue is then you only need jump into a taxi. You’ll probably find the driver has a PhD.”

Ultimately, Treagus hopes his organisation will match migrants with jobs suitable to their experience and skills. He says Omega, which currently has a staff of two, has been running for just a couple of months.

It plans to offer paid internships of between three and six months to migrants.

In this scheme, the migrant will be employed by Omega at between 75 and 85 per cent of the job’s normal salary, and be placed with a firm that can use the migrant’s skills and training.

This, says Treagus, means the hosting company doesn’t have to worry about the person not working out and facing the problems of letting someone go.

“We believe a person would need a minimum of three months in the job to get enough Kiwi experience. Any longer than six months and we think the company should hire them,” says Treagus. “The intention is that we place people that are looking for permanent positions.”

He says the model in Canada shows an 80 per cent success rate. Out of every 10 people selected for a paid internship, eight were offered a full-time job. Six were taken on by the employer that offered them work experience.

“If someone has an internship with a company, they can apply for other roles and list where they are currently working as their present employer,” says Treagus. “And that will make a big difference to their job application.”

In addition, people placed with a company as an intern will be buddied up with a mentor to help them along.

“I have taken on my first intern,” says Treagus. “It is early days, we have only just started to look at companies we can place people with.”

For people in what Treagus calls “survival jobs” who are not prepared to risk what they have for a six-month placement, the foundation is offering weekly one-hour sessions with a mentor, typically a senior executive.

So far 15 people have joined Omega’s mentoring programme and are being helped by staff from around 30 companies. Treagus says the mentorship programme runs for 16 weeks and helps because most migrants do not get a job via traditional routes of applying for an advertised vacancy.

“Networking is strong in New Zealand, so the mentorship programme allows us to put migrants in touch with people who have similar skill sets.” Says Treagus. “The key is for the mentor to help the migrant into a job.

“They can help with refining their CV, showing them what works here and what doesn’t. The mentor is not there to find a person a job, but to support them, to help them with interview skills, and if all goes well the mentor might be able to put the migrant in touch with firms that have vacancies.” Treagus says Omega piloted the mentor scheme in November and among those they have helped was a graphic interface specialist, who was getting by as a taxi driver.

“He had a job within three days,” says Treagus.

But he is taking the Omega concept one step at a time for fear of letting people down. Like any new enterprise its future depends on having a solid reputation.

“I am aware that our credibility this year depends on the calibre of migrant talent that we put forward to companies,” he says. “Quality will make us, so if we place quality candidates this year then we will get organisations buying into what we are doing.

“And I am also aware that we have to run a pretty fine balancing act between managing supply and demand.”

He says there are probably thousands of migrants that could be helped by Omega but resources probably will not meet the level of demand he expects to get. He admits that a lot of people will be disappointed because he does not have the capability to help everyone at this stage.

This year, he expects to help around 60 migrants, with numbers doubling each year thereafter.

“This year is about getting the model right,” he says. “And if it all works out well, we can ramp up the figures next year. The scheme in Canada is into its fourth year and had one company take on 100 interns last year.”

Treagus is to visit Toronto to see first-hand how they run their migrant programme. He says New Zealand businesses need to ensure that migrants’ expectations are met when they arrive here.

“Business need to see the opportunities of having a diverse workforce,” he says. “Migrants are a resource that will bring different ideas and different ways of working to an employer. That must be seen as a strength to any organisation.”

He says once Omega has gained traction it hopes to provide self-help kits to smaller companies and help drive change and have them feel more comfortable about taking on migrants.

For those that can’t be helped by Omega right now, there are job expos designed to help migrants in Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Wellington.

Organiser Tina Raines says the first of this year’s expos will be held in Auckland next month and previous ones have been a “major contributor in fast-tracking the settlement of migrants in New Zealand”.

“The shows bring together all the resources available for job searches, upskilling through training and education, accessing health services, immigration and settlement support,” she says.

Reference: New Zealand Herald