9 Mar 2023

'I've got the boats, not the people' - Fullers boss calls for easing immigration rules for crew

From Checkpoint, 6:07 pm on 9 March 2023

Coromandel could have its ferry service back if the government loosened immigration rules to allow more skippers and qualified crew into the country, says the chief executive of Fullers 360. 

Road access around the peninsula is precarious with State Highway 25A out for least a year after a massive chunk collapsed during recent cyclones.

More than a year ago, Fullers 360 suspended its Auckland to Coromandel town ferry because of severe staff shortages which are affecting its other services too. 

Fullers 360 is short about 50 people for their Auckland services at the moment and are cancelling up to 30 percent of their sailings a week as a result, chief executive Mike Horne told Checkpoint.

"I've got the boats to do it, I just don't have the skilled people."

Cyclone road damage has promoted calls for a reboot and expansion of the ferry service to more towns. 

A Fullers ferry docked at the Auckland Ferry Terminal before leaving for Waiheke

Fullers suspended its Auckland to Coromandel service last year.  Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

But Horne said getting to the other side of the peninsula was not an easy ask due to very different marine conditions.

"Once you go around the eastern side of Coromandel, it's very, very difficult. You've got different sea states, you require completely different sorts of boats," he said.

"Your reliability once you get into what's essentially open ocean is quite a different situation from a maritime perspective.

"I think it would probably be quite problematic and the infrastructure you would need to put in around berthing and compliance under regulation would be not impossible, but quite challenging."

It was also be very costly to ferry to places such as Whitianga, Horne said. 

"There'd simply need to be a level of planning and investment that went into that."

The Coromandel township to Auckland service was suspended well before the recent cyclone and weather incidents "entirely because we just don't have the skilled crews" to maintain that route, Horne said. 

"It's a fairly grim time at the moment."

There was a desperate need to allow skilled foreign workers in the country sooner to help fill positions, Horne said. 

Training top crew locally can take years, which is part of the problem with filling vacancies.

"It's really about the associated skills as opposed to entry-level positions, of which we are fully utilised at the moment," Horne said. 

Because training can take so long, easing immigration settings to allow skilled ferry crew in is essential for any expansion or return of temporarily closed routes. 

"An ability to fast-track the right people with the right skills" was key, Horne said. 

"That can be highly targeted particularly with Maritime New Zealand in terms of what those skills are, and we've been working really hard with Maritime New Zealand to help identify robustly what those are and bring them into the country."

Transport Minister Michael Wood said he had also been talking with Thames-Coromandel Mayor Len Salt about reviving the ferry service between Auckland and Coromandel township.

Labour Party MP Michael Wood

Transport Minister Michael Wood Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I think this is worth exploring."

Wood said he was amenable to Fullers 360's concerns about easing immigration restrictions. 

"I'm open to consideration of further pathways that might assist, including looking at residency options," Wood said.

"So we have some work under way to look at that at the moment."