For many job-seeking skilled migrants, there is nothing more frustrating, humiliating and esteem-sapping than the words "no New Zealand experience".

It's a vicious circle. "It twists you and then it destroys you," says PD, a 30-year-old software programmer born in India.

PD, and others like him, flourish their evidence of top-class qualifications and experience and argue: "How am I expected to get that New Zealand experience if you don't give me a job?"

Like many skilled migrants interviewed for this series, PD is not willing to identify himself because he fears publicity will make his job search even harder.

He has a Bachelor of Arts degree and his skills lie in IT - mainly internet banking, content management and travel industry applications.

His resume bears names with worldwide currency, such as the bank Credit Suisse and consultants Arthur Andersen Worldwide. His industry is crying out for people.

Within a week of migrating from India to Singapore in 2000, PD had three job offers: "It was mind-boggling trying to pick one."

In New Zealand since November with his Kiwi wife, he has been careful to target relevant jobs rather than scatter CVs round like confetti. But he says the 100 or so he sent out resulted in 15 interviews and a dispiriting number of suspiciously swift, automatic responses by email saying that no New Zealand experience equals no job.

PD's English is near-perfect, his accent no hindrance to communication. He's articulate and personable. So what's the problem?

"I don't talk like you. I don't look like you," he says bluntly, sitting at the cluttered table of his Morningside flat. "All they're looking at is cultural differences."

New Zealand employers, he says, are not racist as much as clueless with people from other cultures, and avoid dealing with their inadequacies by pushing people aside with an ambiguous, catch-all phrase.

PD knows this is penalising him - not that it is ever said out loud. For one job, he was the sole applicant out of 20 to reach the shortlist. He and the recruitment consultant thought he was in.

But nothing happened for three weeks. When he pushed for a response, he learned that the client felt he was lacking a particular skill - one that had not been mentioned in the interview.

The actual reason, PD suspects, was a boss uncomfortable with the idea of an Indian worker.

To discriminate in employment on racial grounds is against the Human Rights Act, but PD feels challenging the decision will complicate his job hunt.

A Herald report last month about the "ethnic penalties" employers impose on CVs bearing Chinese and Indian names brought PD both despair and some cheer: despair because the story confirmed his suspicions, and some relief to see the issue aired openly.

In that report, Auckland University academic Marie Wilson castigated employers for "shutting out a huge resource ... If you want to be internationally competitive, you can't be provincial in your hiring".

Although PD says he's not too bitter - yet - he is increasingly uncomfortable being dependent on his wife. He will give the job hunt three more weeks before giving up and returning to India with her.

New Zealand's first equal employment opportunities commissioner, Judy McGregor, agrees with PD's assessment of New Zealand bosses as ignorant rather than rampantly racist.

The phrase "lack of New Zealand experience" is "in some cases ... blatant discrimination", she says. But more often, it is "code for a number of uncertainties".

"One, it's about fit - about social acceptance in smaller organisations. If you employ five people and they all have to work together every day, as opposed to 50 where there would be less bonding, they want to know workers can get along."

But says Dr McGregor, who works for the Human Rights Commission, fit is "a completely nebulous concept and hides a whole lot of prejudices and stereotypes. But we wouldn't be human if we didn't do it, and it's silly not to acknowledge it exists".

"We need to ... think of ways through those prejudices and stereotypes.

"Secondly, many employers are completely unsure because they have never hired anyone different from themselves. They don't know if it's going to work for them."

Thirdly, says Dr McGregor, there might be, in some jobs, a genuine need for local knowledge, but she calls it "a marginal factor".

Leah Gates, special projects manager for Auckland Chamber of Commerce, agrees: "I honestly believe [employers] are risk-averse, and see the migrant as being more work, or more concern, or more costs, than somebody who has been here for a while."

Everyone has tales of migrant taxi drivers (or pizza delivery people, or supermarket checkout operators) invited here under our skilled migrant category but woefully underemployed.

"There's a lot of frustration," says Asoka Basnayake, the settlement services co-ordinator for the Auckland Regional Migrant Resource Centre.

"I heard about one person who attempted suicide. Lots of them get depressed, and I've come across people who have got into gambling or have suffered mental health problems. It is really tough."

Chemical engineer Praveen Bhagat, 54, is still riding the emotional rollercoaster. With his post-graduate skills given the tick by the Qualifications Authority, Mr Bhagat arrived five months ago from India with his tertiary-trained psychologist wife Jyoti and their 15-year-old son, Shikhar.

His early elation at finding a better place to educate his son was replaced by anger and depression as he struck what he calls "roadblocks". Some suggested he should work in a service station.

He refuses to do that, and is cold-calling in the evenings for a market research company while watching his savings dwindle.

"I have been very, very angry sometimes," he admits. About a month ago, acute frustration led to a sudden loss of confidence.

"I wasn't able to talk to people, and I was going down and down ... I was depressed," says Mr Bhagat.

Although the family remain close-knit and he has made some Kiwi friends, "I feel I'm all alone here in New Zealand".

Are migrants arriving with realistic job-search expectations? "It varies," says Mary Dawson, executive director of the migrant resource centre.

"The majority recognise that there is more adjustment involved in being a really viable employee, more than they anticipated before they arrived here."

This is a country founded on immigration - and at present, nearly one New Zealander in five was born overseas.

Our population is ageing and people are having fewer children. With fewer people going straight from school to work, the labour pool has shrunk and employers need to exploit less "traditional" sources of skilled staff.

They are struggling to find staff with unemployment at its lowest in 19 years, according to the Department of Labour, and skill shortages exist everywhere.

Those shortages reached 30-year highs by the end of last year, with 61 per cent of firms saying they were having more difficulty finding skilled staff compared with the previous year.

But it seems that when immigration rules were changed in 1987 to rank skills over Anglo-Saxon heritage, both employers and migrants were ill-prepared. Migrants in general were left to fend for themselves.

Labour Department spokeswoman Michelle Williams says the Government aims to attract between 45,000 and 50,000 migrants a year, with about 60 per cent of those skilled - that is, aged under 55, with a certain points "score" for their education, skills and experience.

Last year's Budget heralded the New Zealand Settlement Strategy, a work in progress that aims to better co-ordinate all the services that support migrants.

"New Zealand benefits from the skills and resources that refugees and migrants bring," says Judi Altinkaya, national co-ordinator for a new programme that aims to better link migrants to information sources.

"It's in everyone's best interests to have them settled successfully."

At various meetings last year, migrants relayed clear messages to the policy wonks. Settlement information was fragmented, they said. Lack of New Zealand experience and having a foreign name was a serious barrier to landing work, and many migrants felt forced to change their names to escape prejudice.

Migrants believed that many employers were reluctant to give them jobs because they were perceived as high-maintenance. Many were vulnerable to exploitation at work as they tended to put up with poor pay and conditions, fearing another job would be impossible to find.

Language and cultural conflicts with employers were cited as a reason for migrants' high levels of self-employment.

The Government, ran one thread, had an obligation to do more to help people into a first job.

Also underpinning planning is a longitudinal study that will survey 5000 migrants' experiences until 2010.

The pilot, called Migrants' Experiences of New Zealand and released in March last year, canvassed 1240 people.

It found that employment rates improved for all migrants between six months after arriving (53 per cent) and 18 months after (62 per cent). That leaves many still searching.

People from England, South Africa and North America do better in the job market than those from Asia or elsewhere, says Department of Labour research manager Stephen Dunstan.

But being from one of these countries does not immunise migrants against discrimination, and those interviewed say it is most likely to happen at work.

The fact that many jobs are filled by word of mouth rather than through advertising works against recent arrivals, Dunstan says.

Some migrants realise that they might need to study locally to get a qualification that bosses will recognise. But employers, they say, need more education about what migrants can offer.

Amen to that, says PD. The day after meeting the Herald, he was off to Wellington for an interview. He had already done well during a half-hour phone interview and had high hopes of getting a better hearing than usual.

Why? He was to be interviewed by another migrant.