The number companies relying on immigrant workers has soared, according to the Employers and Manufacturers Association annual survey of members.

The survey found 49 per cent of employers were using the immigration process to recruit staff, compared to 38 per cent in 2016 and just 27 per cent in 2015.

The trend was underpinned by increasing difficulty in recruiting staff.

The majority of employers (65 per cent) said that there was, or would soon be, a skills shortage in their industry.

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A similar majority – 61 per cent - also said they were finding it difficult or very difficult to recruit staff, up 8 per cent on last year.

Some 72 per cent are finding it difficult or very difficult to recruit for skilled positions – roughly the same result as the previous survey.

"Across everything from window washers to microchip makers, it's everywhere you go," said EMA chief executive Kim Campbell. "And it's whether you go to Putaruru of central Auckland."

More than 420 employers based in the upper North Island responded to the survey.
The overall outlook had darkened since last year.

About half (48 per cent) of respondents expected overall business conditions to stay the same in 2018, while 28 per cent expected conditions to worsen.

Only 24 per cent expected business conditions to improve.

Last year the survey found 47 per cent of businesses expected conditions to improve and 4 per cent expected conditions to worsen.

There had also been a decrease in confidence about their own operations.

Fifty-six per cent of businesses were expecting their own business to grow over 2018, compared with 68 per cent a year ago.

The fall in confidence was not surprising given that the survey was taken in the immediate aftermath of the election, Campbell said.

"One wonders what will happen after we've seen more clarity, because people are just filling in the dots. It isn't just the uncertainty about policy but there is uncertainty of the coalition, they've never seen this before."

Immigration and employment policy were big issues but Campbell said there were signs that the Government was moving cautiously.

Some 80 per cent of respondents said they had used the 90-day trial periods when hiring staff – something Labour has said it planned to repeal.

"The early indications are there is a reassuring pragmatism," he said. "But we have to see the detail."

Broadly this was still positive survey, Campbell said. The underlying economic fundamentals were still good and the global economy was starting to expand again.

"But I would hate to see everything come to a grinding halt just because you can't get people to do things.