Meet Ashburton, population 20,000 and about 80 kilometres southwest of Christchurch on State Highway 1. Ashburton is a rural service town for a largely rural district that extends from the Pacific coast to the Southern Alps, from the Rakaia River to the Rangitata River.
Ashburton District has a problem. It is critically short on workers. So short in fact that there are about 500 known employment vacancies at the time of writing this. Many of the vacancies are in Ashburton township, but also in its hinterland on farms where farmers need farmhands or in smaller towns such as Hinds, Methven and Rakaia.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ashburton District is the public perception of the town and the district. To many it is just a town to stop off and fill the petrol tank up, get a bite and take off again. 20,000 people living in a town that is almost exclusively geared towards the rural sector does not entice most urbanites to leave their comfortable fortresses and venture into rural mid Canterbury. With the only major tourist attractions being the ski field at Mount Hutt and the Lord of the Rings set tours that go to where Edoras was built on a glaciated outcrop
It is not to say that there is necessarily anything bad about Ashburton. It is a pleasant enough town with nice gardens and the Ashburton River immediately south of the town. The Rakaia River is only 20 minutes driving away and one can be up Mount Hutt in just over an hour. But what if fishing, skiing and Lord of the Rings are not your thing?
One thing that Ashburton is likely to have working in its favour is relatively cheap housing. It is far enough away from Christchurch to not be influenced by the Christchurch rental market.
Ashburton is not alone in having this problem. Clutha District Council in Otago has an even bigger employment crisis. It currently has around 800 known employment vacancies.
In the case of Clutha District, it too is a predominantly rural farming district. But rather than one or two large towns, it has several smaller towns scattered throughout. The major attractions that can be offered in Clutha District are the Catlins, which is a nice scenic coastal area in the southeastern most corner of the South Island. During winter the lakes and reservoirs inland from Dunedin host curling competitions on their frozen surfaces.
Both districts have a problem in that they are seen as being “on the way” to somewhere else. In the case of Ashburton District, it could be “on the way” to the Mackenzie Basin, to Christchurch or Timaru. In the case of Clutha District, it could be “on the way” to Dunedin, Queenstown or Invercargill.
Neither seem to have seriously advertized their staffing shortages. And how much effort did they put into giving incentives for people living in larger towns to move into these rural districts. They are not simply going to walk away from their current lives without a job and clear incentives to move, such as assistance with accommodation and getting established, as well as adequate pay. Both Districts could advertise the relatively low cost of living, the out door attractions. Both despite being rural districts are within easy day driving distance of larger populated areas (Christchurch for Ashburton District and Dunedin for Clutha District).
Perhaps when these issues are addressed, there might be hope of Ashburton and Clutha sorting out their employment issues.