Lunch with sunny Jim Anderton

Following the terrorist events in the US, a gloom seems to have descended on workplaces and society in general. There is also much talk of a world economic recession, but aren't we in danger of talking ourselves into one?

Following the terrorist events in the US, a gloom seems to have descended on workplaces and society in general.

There is also much talk of a world economic recession, but aren’t we in danger of talking ourselves into one?

Jim Anderton might think so. We recently had the highly optimistic deputy prime minister and minister for economic development to lunch.

Naturally he was was visiting us to blow his and the government’s trumpet, but Anderton says in his cross-country travels promoting regional economic development he has come across an amazing amount of innovation, producing many goods ripe for innovation.

He recalled De’Amalfi, an Auckland-based producer of world-leading high-tech safety helmets. De’Amalfi sells to the US, Holland, Spain, Germany, Australia and Russia, estimating its US exports alone will be worth up to $60 million.

The firm recently received an extra $20,000 Enterprise Award. But, says Anderton, if the government had not helped them earlier the firm was certain to head to Australia or Korea.

Anderton says another firm, just down the road from his Christchurch home, produces enclosed air-conditioned helmets for sandblasting. Wearers look like Darth Vader, he notes, but the models are selling successfully to the US.

Meanwhile, Invercargill is keen to become the boat-building capital of New Zealand (although it first has to outdo Auckland, Whangarei and Tauranga among others), the East Cape should see 5000 to 10,000 jobs created in wood processing industries, says Anderton, and Solid Energy is developing new coal mines. Hamilton wants to develop an “innovation park” tied to its university, crown research institutes and dairy and meat industries. The city is already home to the successful Gallagher Engineering and Pavilion Technologies.

Each region is completing reports on their strengths and government wants to play "honest broker" in helping them attract investment. The government has millions to help overseas businesses set up, says Anderton, using Trade New Zealand to bring them in and Industry New Zealand to help them when they are here.

Every week, Anderton says, some overseas company contacts his Ministry of Economic Development, including such niche companies as a South Dakota producer of beef jerky. Companies aren’t necessarily asking for money or tax breaks, since New Zealand is often a cheaper place to produce goods, but simply help to make things happen and guide them through the planning process.

As to potential hitches, Anderton admits the “jury is out” on the finer details of the Resource Management Act, but problems are usually down to “local interpretation” and the government is looking at the matter of individuals blocking developments with “vexatious” appeals.

Bureaucrats, he says, were previously “terrified” to do things to help. They did not help businesses, so firms went overseas. Now he was making officials more flexible. Anderton claims credit in making nine government departments work together to create hundreds of boat-building jobs at Hobsonville.

“The consciousness has filtered through to government department and local authorities,” Anderton says.

Nationally, I believe, things aren’t as bad as might appear, though it is arguable whether this is because of or despite the coalition government.

The farmers are raking in healthy profits thanks to a weak dollar and tourism should still rise (we are relatively safe as well as "clean and green"). Unemployment is expected to remain at a historically low 5% to 6% in the coming year, inflation will be 2% to 3%, and wages may be rising even faster. Mortgage rates are at about their lowest in decades and could well go lower. Economic growth at 2% to 3% remains stable and business may be picking up in Australia. Relative peace remains in the workplace, with few strikes.

I am not alone in my optimism. IT recruiters such as Craig Parsons of Icon Recruitment says Auckland has many successful software development firms who are “pumping” and creating jobs.

By having largely avoided the dot-com bubble, I say we are avoiding the collapse and should see further strong growth in our $200 million of software exports.

The government has new measures to attract more skilled immigrants, even if policy concerning refugee “queue jumpers” is debatable. Government budgets remain healthy enough to let it "spend it way out of recession" on much-needed capital investment, should one ever come.

Despite all this good news, many remain pessimistic in these uncertain times, when we should be more cheerful. We should stress to travellers and would-be investors that faraway New Zealand is safer than the US, Europe and the Middle East. (And it will be summer soon.)

While not forgetting the tragedy of the World Trade Center attack, from a business point of view, re-equipping Manhattan with cables, routers, computers and the like should create many jobs. Then there will be spin-offs for high-tech devices for defence, weaponry, counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering. With all these opportunities, IT share prices should actually be increasing.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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