Wellington hopes to tackle shortage of tradesmen and professionals by coaxing expats in Australia to return home They have been sporting adversaries for years, but now Australia and New Zealand have something else to fight over: skilled labour. Both countries are experiencing an acute lack of skilled workers such as mechanics, plumbers and electricians, as well as professionals like doctors and pharmacists. The reason for the shortage is the same on both sides of the Tasman Sea: booming economies, rapidly ageing populations and increasingly globalised workforces. The problem is most acute in New Zealand as a greater proportion of the population has gone overseas in search of higher wages and better career opportunities. Of New Zealand's 4 million people, about 600,000, a third of its skilled workforce, live abroad. More than 250,000 of them are in Australia. Wellington is now planning an aggressive campaign to lure expatriate New Zealanders home, emphasising the country's enviable quality of life and the fact it has grown more dynamic and cosmopolitan over the past decade or so. The campaign will put New Zealand in fierce competition with Australia, which will want to retain as many qualified Kiwis as it can. Speaking yesterday in Melbourne, New Zealand Finance Minister Michael Cullen said Australia was looking for 'extraordinarily similar people' to his own country. 'It's the trades and technical areas which are in particularly short supply, and they are the hardest for us to attract,' Dr Cullen said. He conceded that New Zealand would struggle to meet the salary expectations of many expatriates. 'We can't match Australian wages in the short to medium term unless we succeed in lifting our productivity growth over the long term. But we've stopped slipping behind as we did for a long period of time, particularly during the 1980s and the early 1990s,' he said. His comments echoed remarks made earlier this week by New Zealand Labour Minister Paul Swain, who said: 'There's a lot of Kiwis who have been away for maybe longer than five years, who do not know exactly what has happened here: the fact that we have got a booming economy, the fact that we have skill shortages, the fact that we need them home.' In the face of growing job vacancies, the New Zealand government is putting pressure on its immigration officials to fill migrant quotas. The immigration quota for this year is 45,000, but the government has indicated it would ideally like to bump up the total to 50,000. Last week Australia announced it would consider taking an extra 20,000 skilled migrants in 2006 in a bid to offset its labour shortage. That would take its total intake for the year to around 100,000. A report released last month said Australia's growing legion of grey-haired retirees would result in labour shortages across many industries in five years' time. Employment agency Drake International told Melbourne's The Age newspaper that severe shortages were being felt in skilled trades, as well as the automotive, education, health, and transport and distribution sectors. In an attempt to combat the problem, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has encouraged high-school students to take up a trade rather than heading to university after graduation.