Skifield ready to open but still faces staffing woes

Ohau Snow Fields had a fresh dump of snow on Wednesday night — and is set for a July 3 opening —...
Ohau Snow Fields had a fresh dump of snow on Wednesday night — and is set for a July 3 opening — but owners Mike and Louise Neilson are crying out for more staff. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Lake Ohau Lodge and Ohau Snow Fields have the bookings and the snow — they just do not have the staff.

The skifield is scheduled to open for the season on July 3, but like other operators around the country, it has struggled to get New Zealanders to fill the gaps left by international workers.

Co-owner Mike Neilson said more lift operators were needed, and he would happily employ two more instructors to meet demand.

Bookings at the lodge were also "very strong" this winter, but Mr Neilson and wife Louise were crying out for a permanent head chef and a barista.

"We’re chock-a-block at the moment at the lodge," he said.

"There’s no lack of people wanting to come and stay here and enjoy it.

"Our problem is, we can’t service that demand."

International workers usually made up about half of Lake Ohau Lodge and Ohau Snow Fields’ payroll. Many of them chased winters between hemispheres, but were now unable to enter New Zealand due to Covid-19 border closures.

New Zealanders, whom Mr Neilson would happily employ, were not applying for the advertised jobs.

"Every day you look at your emails, and every day you post another ad."

Temporary staff were helping to keep the family-run lodge going in the meantime, but it was not ideal for longer-term planning, he said.

On a daily basis, the lodge received applications from people overseas who were interested in working at Ohau. But the visa application process was lengthy and costly — and there were no guarantees the staff would get border exemptions, Mr Neilson said.

"I spent something like two to three months with an application for a groomer driver from the [United] States to come in," he said.

"In the end I pulled the pin because the season is here, and with the overlay of two weeks MIQ and so on, they’re not going to be here in time."

Earlier this year, Ski Areas Association of New Zealand wrote to the Government on behalf of New Zealand ski operators, with an urgent appeal to grant exemptions for highly specialised workers, such as ski patrol, lift technicians and snow groomers.

Although some operators had managed to secure exemptions for specialised workers, Mr Neilson had not been so lucky.

He said the situation was dire for seasonal industries.

"The way in which we employ people is a function of seasonality — not of some political mandate, and this is what doesn’t seem to have registered.

"You can’t maintain employment for 12 months a year when you only operate for three.

"It’s working in with Mother Nature, you know?

"You don’t employ people to do a harvest in the countryside all year round."

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