Jobs Summit Lacked Innovation

Predictably the sketchy proposals emerging from last week’s “Jobs Summit” ranged from mildly interesting to the completely ridiculous and I’m left wondering how many will actually come to pass. But the ideas fest, hosted at Manukau City, was not actually about generating sensible approaches to the economic crisis, it was about putting on a display of unity and generating some positive buzz. Ironically, the business leaders at the conference will likely preside over hundreds of layoffs themselves in the coming months.

I like that John Key is an ideas man and is prepared to entertain novel concepts. But his sidekick Bill English made it very clear going into the summit that the state of the nation’s finances would not allow for a great deal of additional expenditure. By lowering expectations ahead of the summit he allowed the government to wiggle out of addressing any meaningful economic reform. His comments may even foreshadow some backpeddling on big ticket sacred cows like tax cuts, broadband and superannuation.

I guess my real concern is that the Jobs Summit hoopla has eclipsed the fact that economic realities have shifted so much that we really need to make a quantum leap in how we approach investing in our future as a nation. I’m not convinced that the summit properly addressed these issues. Borrowing cash to dig cable trenches and build a cycleway will simply not cut the mustard in my opinion.

Since it was elected, the government has astutely avoided making any comments about the need to invest in research, science and technology innovation. In fact the only promise they have made in this area is to kill off the R&D tax credit. They still don’t get it. The only businesses that are growing right now are precisely those that have invested in technology research and development. For example colostrum manufacturer New Image have exploded onto the Asian market. Even the horrendous balls-up in China by dairy commodity behemoth Fonterra has failed to suppress the demand for this high end, added value product.

Saving jobs in the breakfast cereal factories and assembly lines of South Auckland is important. But even more important is creating more high tech companies and developing our largely under-educated workforce. The lack of aspiration we currently demonstrate as a nation is reflected more and more in the ugly twin cultures of ethnic gangs and idiot boyracers that are furtively permeating our society and populating our streets with a generation of social rejects. What we really needed was an all encompassing social, economic and technological Innovation Summit.

8 thoughts on “Jobs Summit Lacked Innovation

  1. I was not particularly sad to see Labour get kicked out- they seemed to have run out of steam, needed a good shake up. But what always worried me about the prospect of National in power is that they just seemed to have no strategic vision, no idea of what direction the country should be moving in. Sadly, nothing I’ve seen since then has given me cause for optimism.

    And those social problems you mention in the last paragraph? Well, my passport is coming up for renewal soon…. Maybe I’ll just swap it for Chinese citizenship. I’m kidding, of course, but the news from home does worry me.

    It seems to me that New Zealand needs strong, positive leadership with strategic vision, and I only see that in a few blogs, not in the places it’s needed.

    Maybe this is an unnecessarily pessimistic expat’s view, but that’s how it looks from here.

  2. It’s relatively easy to be an armchair critic. A lot harder when you have to balance competing forces of unions, employers, policy makers and a dogmatic finance Minister – of course.

    I think we still have a lot to celebrate in NZ, but the lack of a national vision seems like a painfully obvious oversight at this point in time.

  3. I think “lack of vision” is a correct diagnosis. But we need to be careful about copying other countries… a few years ago everyone was saying we should look to Ireland – but today the Celtic Tiger’s has lost a few of its stripes.

    Innovation and value-added products is one part of the equation. National’s plan to repeal the R&D tax credit seems crazy, after the long battle to get it in place to start with.

    The other half of the equation is the need for expertise to take the innovation offshore – while retaining the wealth generated and the IP in NZ. We’ve seen too many great kiwi start-ups get bought out when they’re on the cusp of greatness. My view as an expat in Europe is that NZ business still has a lot to learn about selling hi-tech globally.

  4. Yep, New Zealand does have strengths that it should be playing to. Biotech and many IT and film niches spring to mind, as does education. But yes, as Richard says, New Zealand has a lot to learn about doing business in the big wide world.

  5. I find it intriguing that all the bloggers in this thread other than the author don’t actually live in the country we are trying to salve. What does this tell you about the viability of NZ retaining its intellectual crop?

    If, as Paul suggests, we do manage to develop our largely under-educated workforce, will they then be motivated to leave in even greater droves than they do today? I expect so. NZ simply cannot compete with the huge money on offer internationally to intelligent, innovative and resourceful individauls that we do naturally produce as a significant percentage of our educated youth.

    I have almost come full circle in my thinking in this regard. I used to believe that NZ could become a small but patronically styled entrepreneurial society of tech innovators (much as Ireleand was touted for the arts) but am now of the opinion that it will never happen in anything other than a limited fashion.

    Worse, I think we should probably accept that we will always be (and be seen to be) a dual economy of agriculture and tourism quietly domociled at the bottom of the world and simply come to terms with the grim fact that almost all those who are good enough to make a difference to our economy or our society end up offshore making a difference elsewhere.

    This may be the greatest economic reality New Zealanders have to face.

  6. We certainly do face challenges, but I am somewhat more optimistic than the previous correspondent. Two points. Firstly, the Kiwi diaspora are an asset, not a liability. KEA has over 25,000 ex-pats who are willing to help compatriots make connections offshore. Anyone can join (even people based in Thailand).

    Secondly, there is also an inflow of clever people into NZ who come here for lifestyle reasons. These people are also an asset. For example I’m currently establishing a software business with several skilled migrants. They are highly skilled and motivated and a pleasure to work with. With this global perspective I am confident we will succeed in our bid to develop and export technology services.

    New Zealand has to believe in itself first, before we can advance as a nation beyond being the cow pat and tiki capital of the world.

  7. Interesting point, Gabriel. Should I point out that not only do I live in Beijing, I work on a joint degree programme with an Australian university?

    But, like Paul, and despite the tenor of my previous two comments, I am optimistic: If our intelligent, innovative and resourceful individuals, like, for example, our host, could easily create incentives for intelligent, innovative and resourceful Kiwi youth to stay and contribute. But optimistic with one proviso: For that to happen our leadership needs to look beyond agricultural exports and tourism, and way, way beyond short term profit.

    Take education as an example: NZ has heaps to offer China, but not English. Really, the English language is not enough. These Aussies I work with are running a Bachelor of Information Technology taught entirely in English here in Beijing. And they’re not just looking at short-term profit, either, they’ve made it clear to their Chinese partners they’re in it for the long haul and keen to keep working on and improving the programme we deliver. That’s the kind of learning about how to do business NZ needs to be doing.

    I only offer the programme I work on as an example. There should not be a need to leave NZ, and there’s no reason why NZ can’t take the Peter Jackson approach.

    And as Paul says, us expats are an asset that can and should be tapped.

    But there’s nothing wrong with being the cowpat capital of the world. Cowpats are a valuable resource. They can be turned into methane, fertilizer, and probably a whole host of other things. Cowpats and sheep pellets could go a long, long way to cutting down NZ’s need to import petroleum. And that gets back to that leadership thing: There’s something seriously wrong when everybody’s talking clean and green while one of our biggest industries fouls our waterways with what is a seriously wasted, valuable resource.

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