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Jobs Watch: Lessons from New Zealand

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Ben Jacklet
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Like Oregon, New Zealand has about 4 million residents, gorgeous beaches and a large and (let’s face it) obnoxious neighbor intent on dominating the regional economy. If you think Oregonians have a bias against California, try talking to a Kiwi about Australia.

Unlike Oregon, New Zealand has a functioning health care system, a low unemployment rate and no sprawl. The Kiwis didn’t avoid recession, but they did avoid getting creamed by it. Unemployment has spiked to 7.3%, the highest rate there since 1999, but nowhere near the double-digit woes we’ve been wrestling with in Oregon.

I’m no expert on New Zealand, but I liked what I saw during my recent travels there. A lot. Here are a few lessons I’m bringing back to Oregon, for what it’s worth:

Take care of your children. While I was visiting my sister gave birth to an exceptionally gorgeous baby girl (OK, so I’m a little biased). But get this: the total cost of the pregnancy, delivery and recovery, including home visits by the midwife, was zero. And the total bill for health care for the first five years of the child’s life will be zero. You might think that Kiwis pay a far higher tax rate than we do. They don’t. As for the benefits of full health care coverage for children, I’d say they’re self-evident.

There’s money in farming. Deep into a very long car trip with a 7-year-old Kiwi girl in the back seat, we were playing the I Spy game and she was thinking of a word that begins with P. After a dozen failures we gave up, and she told us (duh!) the word was paddock. We laughed because paddock is not a word you hear in the U.S. often. But if you think about it, most of New Zealand is one large paddock—sheep and cows everywhere. The single most powerful political and economic force in the country is a dairy cooperative. This is a rural nation. But not a poor one. The standard of living in New Zealand is as high as it is in Oregon.

Work together. Isolation has taught New Zealanders a lot about the power of collaboration. Competition exists of course, but it isn’t so cutthroat. They’re all on the same remote island together, after all. Cooperative ventures make sense. They work together, and it works. I’ve seen the cooperative model work brilliantly for fishermen in Alaska and produce farmers in Greece, but I’ve seen plenty of resistance to it as well, in the name of independence. The Kiwi system proves you can embrace independence and cooperation simultaneously.

Do it yourself. Hand a bottle of beer to a Kiwi bloke and he’s just as likely to use a lighter as a bottle opener. Then maybe he’ll show you the little project he’s been working on in the garage. This is a nation of tinkerers and barterers. When something breaks they figure out a way to fix it cheap, rather than buy something cheap (made in China) to replace it.

Don’t sweat the silly rules. I realized upon arrival that I had no driver’s license with me. Doh! So much for renting a car, right? Not in New Zealand. The guy at the rental agency shrugged his shoulders and explained that he would just type the letters from my license into a computer anyhow, so all I really needed was the number. I managed to track that down with a few phone calls and voila — we were ready to do business. As I was about to drive off he reminded me to fill up the tank before returning the car. He’d tried to charge other renters what it cost to fill the tank rather than the ridiculously inflated price the company wanted him to charge—“and this bloody machine wouldn’t let me!” he said, pointing at his computer.

Don’t rip off your customers. The guy at the rental car shop wasn’t the only proprietor going out of his way to get me to spend less money instead of more. A wise-cracking shopkeeper in Hawke’s Bay talked me out of overpriced American candy for the kids and steered me towards a cheaper local version. A barefoot hotelier in Napiers talked me out of the pricier room by steering me to a cheaper one. Did he want to see my passport or run my card? “No worries.”

I’ve done my share of foreign traveling over the past 20 years, and this trip stands out for its positive vibe. No one tried to rip me off the entire time I was there. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. Ironically, I think I ended up spending more as a result. I wanted to support what they have going on there. I can only hope that the experience is similar for visitors to Oregon.

In my humble opinion, it is time to strengthen relations between Oregon and New Zealand. If you think about it, they’re practically mirror images of each other, upside-down and reversed, with traffic on the wrong side of the road. Think pinot noir grapes, apple and pear trees, wind-swept beaches, and a burgeoning craft brewery industry. Trade out Douglas fir trees for sheep and stoplights for roundabouts and you’ve got a pretty even swap.

What we need is a robust winter-to-summer exchange program, Portland to Auckland and back again.

If selected I will serve.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.



Catherine Douglas
0 #1 Ben - I LOVE THIS!Catherine Douglas 2010-03-17 12:48:52
I lived in NZ for 4 years and am married to a Kiwi. We now reside in Oregon and came here because of the Pinot noir, beaches, mountains, beer... they really are so similar.

And you were spot on about the virtues of New Zealand. The maternity leave benefits, health care, collaboration.. . all very true indeed.

Well done on this story - I am a fan.
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John Ochwat
0 #2 Corker!John Ochwat 2010-03-18 13:54:25
Nice column, and full of good observations.
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0 #3 I JUST WONDER?Claude 2010-05-26 19:07:02
How many illegal immigrants their welfare system support?
How many illegal immigrants consuming resources in their justice system?
How many illegal immigrants' children their education system accommodates?
No wonder they can afford more benefits for their citizens.o
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