Youth in holding pattern as recession bites north

By Simon Collins

Three years after the global financial crisis hit, its impacts are ingrained in our communities. Social issues reporter Simon Collins visits hard-hit Northland in the first of three reports.

Northland youngster Daniel Alker is keen to find work. Pictures / Natalie Slade
Northland youngster Daniel Alker is keen to find work. Pictures / Natalie Slade

Tawhai Tapene and Daniel Alker are bright, motivated young men. But they are out of work.

Tapene, 18, finished Year 13 at Whangarei's Kamo High School last year. He was a member of the kapa haka group and has been tutoring this year's group since leaving school.

"I really want to be a P.E. teacher. My plan for this year was a gap year, and another year after that, to make money, and then go to university," he says.

"I was originally planning to go to the Navy. That fell through because they are cutting back on funding. On the course I was going to do they were going to take nine [people] and cut it back to three."

So he has been pounding the streets.

"I've been dropping off my CV to places. It hasn't worked out well."

Alker, 16, is a "farm boy" who left Kamo High in February. He grew up in a rural area, has worked with his dad as a painter and worked for a while on a farm.

His dad told him about a youth transition service in Whangarei's Bank St, run by a local training company, People Potential. They placed him on a three-week course at a related company, RuralTec, then a three-week internship with a farmer. Alker hopes to find work soon.

Three years ago, keen youngsters like these two would have been working. New Zealand boasted one of the world's lowest unemployment rates, just 4.3 per cent, and it was only marginally worse in Northland at 4.7 per cent.

When the global financial crisis hit late in 2008, unemployment jumped back to 6.1 per cent by March 2010. Although job numbers have begun to revive in the year since then, the population has grown even faster so the unemployment rate has crept up further to 6.6 per cent in March this year.

In Auckland it has been static at 7.9 per cent, and in Northland it has gone up from 9.4 per cent a year ago to 9.8 per cent, by far the worst in the nation.

Three years ago, when only 10 per cent of working-age New Zealanders were on benefits, the figure was already 16 per cent in Northland. It was 19 per cent for Northlanders aged 18 to 24, and 35 per cent for Northland Maori.

Today still only 12 per cent of working-age New Zealanders are on welfare. But in Northland it is 21 per cent, for Northlanders aged 18 to 24 it is 29 per cent, and for Northland Maori it is an extraordinary 48 per cent - roughly every second Maori person you meet.

To Haami Piripi, the former Maori Language Commission chief executive who now chairs Kaitaia-based iwi Te Rarawa, it is a national tragedy.

"This was the first place of contact with Europeans," he says. "So in many ways we are the litmus test for the colonisation process. We have been at the receiving end of every whim, every policy, every initiative of the colonial governments right from the start.

"We are in many ways a product of our socio-economic experience. The feature of that experience has been the development of our economy in this region without us ... Right from the beginning, we have been marginalised."

The north is not alone in this experience, of course, and its current plight is exacerbated by a nationwide recession that has dragged on and on.

"We all expected the economy to be recovering in the second half of 2010. Instead the economy didn't just stall, it moved back a bit," says Infometrics economist Matt Nolan.

"A lot of the rest of the world did start to look better. It's hard to tell what happened in New Zealand. There was the debt crisis in Greece, Ireland, Portugal. There was the earthquake in September. The economy didn't recover as quickly as businesses expected and they just moved backwards as a result.

"By about now we would have expected to see a recovery. But we have had another earthquake, and three droughts in four years. New Zealand has just had this large range of unlucky factors."

Unlike the last big recession 20 years ago, this one has not produced a rash of mass lay-offs and closures. There have been no major business shutdowns north of Wellsford, where the Irwin saw factory closed in 2009.

Instead, the job losses have come in ones and twos, especially in small businesses and in big-ticket spending areas such as housing and boatbuilding, which have hit both Auckland and Northland hard. Linked employer-employee data show that most of the net 51,000 jobs lost nationally in the two years to March last year were in construction and related services (15,000) and in manufacturing (23,000) - much of that also construction-related.

Even in recessions, people still eat and cows are still milked, and collectively the farming, forestry and fishing industries actually added 400 extra jobs in the recession. Healthcare, education and other public services added another 27,600 jobs.

In Northland, repeated droughts until early this past summer cost 500 jobs in farming, forestry and fishing on top of 900 in construction-related sectors and 400 in manufacturing, for a total net loss of 1800 jobs. Far North Mayor Wayne Brown, a Kerikeri-based property developer, says the region's housing market "fell over" when the recession hit.

"The one that got overheated was coastal redevelopment, largely wealthy Aucklanders building holiday palaces. Those have stopped," he says.

This recession has also been unusually biased against young people. Employment dropped by between 5 and 6.6 percentage points in all age groups above 25, but in the 15 to 24 age group it collapsed by a quarter, from 61 per cent to just under 45 per cent. In actual numbers, employment of people aged 45 and over actually grew by 11,000 during the recession, although this was still less than the population growth in that age group. But employment of people aged 15 to 24 plunged by 47,000.

For most, this recession means not losing a job but simply not being able to get into a first job. Almost all the young Northlanders interviewed for this article are doing something in the meantime. But they are clearly in a holding pattern, doing courses or casual work only because they can't get a "proper" job.

"I needed to be on a course to get my benefit," says Jessie Putu, 17, who has only been to her course at Sobieski Consultants at Awanui three times and doesn't know what she is supposed to be studying.

"She's on the computer course," explains Maria Tauroa of the Kaitaia youth transition service, who found her a place there.

Eden Kelsen, 16, was looking at nursing but is doing a sport and recreation course through Northland Polytechnic (Northtec) in Kaitaia. "It's just something to do for now, get me off the couch. I have no credits to my name," she says.

Tina Alison, 18, who left Whangarei's Tikipunga High School in 2009, has done a retail and tourism course, a customer service and tourism course and is now on a work-based training course, all at Regent Training Centre. She plans to move on to a level 3 tourism course with Quantum Education Group which will cost her $7400.

"I'd rather be working in a bar," she says. "I've handed some CVs in."

Eruwera Williams, 18, has been shearing and picking kiwifruit and has done a small motors course. He has signed up with labour hire company Allied Workforce in Kaitaia but has not had any work yet.

"I want to do truck driving but I need to get a full licence first. I've only got a learner's," he says.

Edward Wilson, 18, of Kaikohe, worked in forestry for a month but quit because he earned only $1 for pruning each tree. "It's like slavery," he says.

He has done an automotive course at Northtec and knows someone who may give him an automotive apprenticeship in Kerikeri in August. In the meantime, Work and Income sent him to Kawakawa earlier this month for a kiwifruit pruning job interview, which didn't happen because the person handling it didn't work on Fridays.

Stories like this support a common experience that Work and Income is putting much more pressure on people to get work than it has in the past.

"They start playing around with your benefit because they think you are not applying for jobs," says Maria Shelford-Wirihana in Whangarei. "So you have to fill in application after application."

Fiona Reihana-Ruka, a home-based childcare worker at Taheke 24km west of Kaikohe, says her 22-year-old son had his benefit chopped in half because he hasn't followed an instruction to do voluntary work for the Ngapuhi runanga in Kaikohe. "He can't afford to travel every day," she says.

Her son had a short time in the Army, then worked on roads in Australia, but came home when the work ran out two years ago and has had only casual work since. He's applying for a job at the Ngawha prison.

Like all young New Zealanders, even unemployed young Northlanders like him are highly mobile. Most of those interviewed have lived in Auckland at some stage, and many have lived further afield.

Many migrate between two homes. Eruwera Williams's mum is in Te Kao and his dad in Papakura; Jessie Putu has her mum in Kaitaia and dad in Huntly; for Eden Kelsen, Mum is in Kaitaia and Dad in Wanganui.

Thomas Croft, 36, had regular work with Allied Workforce in West Auckland but came up to Kaitaia to visit friends last Christmas and decided to stay.

He checks jobs on Work and Income's computers most days and advertises for work on a Pak 'n Save noticeboard. He registered with Allied Workforce in Kaitaia, but hasn't had any work from them.

"You can't just turn up here. You have to keep ringing them every day," he says.

He has a friend back in Auckland who could employ him painting and gib-boarding and he may go back.

"I really love it up here. I have family up here," he says. "Now I'm just like having second thoughts. I don't know yet."

Of course there are still jobs out there, even in Northland. Logs are hurtling off the hills to meet booming demand from China, Kerikeri fruitgrowers are developing a new system of more year-round employment, and some Whangarei ship repair shops have kept expanding right through the recession.

But in a time of high unemployment, the available jobs go to the qualified and the experienced. Those who left school early without qualifications get shuffled out of the bottom of the pack.

Daniel Alker went to school for only two days this year and left because he was "sick of it".

"I really wanted a job, they wouldn't help me," he says.

Tina Alison quit at the end of Year 11 "because school just wasn't for me".

"RTC [Regent Training Centre] is better because they don't treat you as lower, you're on the same level," she says. She expects to get her NCEA level 2 there this year.

Edward Wilson left Auckland's Western Springs College at 15 because "they were eggs".

"I used to muck around," he says. "When I started trying, the teachers didn't take notice of me, they thought I was a druggie because I got so stoned once that I got caught."

Once again the economists are picking a recovery ahead and, with the massive planned Christchurch rebuild and record-high export prices, perhaps this time they may be right. Treasury forecasts in last month's Budget projected unemployment easing to 5.7 per cent by next March and to an almost pre-recession level of 4.8 per cent a year later.

But Infometrics regional economist Andrew Whiteford says economic growth depends on a skilled workforce. Northland has above-average proportions of young people both working and on benefits, and fewer in education.

"Northland's levels of education are much lower than the rest of the country. That has to be addressed," he says.

Haami Piripi says Maori want to move on from being the country's labourers to sharing in business ownership. Te Rarawa is involved in manuka honey production, and recycling and waste collection in Kaitaia, and is bidding with two other iwi for a role in the Northland rollout of ultra-fast broadband.

He says Far North Treaty of Waitangi settlements expected in the next 18 months could give Te Rarawa seven Landcorp farms, 63,000ha of forests and joint management of Ninety Mile Beach.

"It will make us the largest farmers, the largest forest owners and the wealthiest single entity in the region," he says.

He recognises that creating jobs out of those resources will require education.

"If we are going to get back seven farms and 63,000ha of forests, we don't want to be teaching our children how to make shoes," he says.

"As part of our settlement we are seeing the return of all the land under every school within our rohe [district]. That is the first step to taking an active interest in the education of our children."

Where are the jobs?
Today: Youth crisis in the north
Monday: How can Auckland recover?
Tuesday: How can Northland recover?

Is unemployment affecting you? Email your story to Simon Collins.

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