Civil construction not just for those who ‘can’t’

by Helmut Modlik, Chief Executive at Connexis

I heard recently the story of a principal of an Upper Hutt High School who was growling at a group of senior boys one day and, pointing to a group of men resurfacing a nearby road, said “that’s what you’ll all end up doing if you don’t stop mucking around and do better at school!”

This anecdote says a very great deal about the current place of our industry in the minds of many New Zealanders, and about the challenge in front of us ensuring we have the quantity and quality of people we need moving into the future.

Civil construction offers viable, quality careers but our ability to attract quality candidates direct from school is limited. Currently the career pathway in the civil industry is ad hoc, with those who are learning the trade usually bouncing around as they accumulate experience, slowly growing their skills, and becoming more valuable to their employer and earning more.

For example, Mike left school when he was 13, without any record of learning. He jumped around from job to job before being picked up by Fletcher Construction. Then, enrolled with Connexis, he began on-job training and fast forward to today, is now 29 and a civil infrastructure supervisor. This is a commendable and not uncommon success story for the civil industry.

However, the consequence of an unstructured career pathway and variously qualified skill base means that there is no pattern to learning, often slow progression and high drop off rates. Not only this, but even once we’ve accumulated experience, it’s not easy to communicate to others our skills or their quality easily. This is particularly true and important when communicating with those we want to attract to our industry.

The recent ‘Got a Trade Week’, and the discussion that surrounded it, highlighted the persistent misconception that only those who can’t go to university and get a degree should get involved with trades. Comparing current civil industry training to a structured university degree programme, with set papers and clear pathway options from entrance to graduation, provides a stark contrast and is part of the reason why this misunderstanding exists. University graduates receive recognition that is nationally and internationally accepted. They can easily and accurately communicate the knowledge and skills they have developed to potential employers and others considering the same career option.

This doesn’t only affect workers. Contractors suffer from the difficulty to attract workers and judge their competency and the degree of quality they will bring to the business. Getting it wrong is painful and expensive for everyone. When bidding for contracts, it is not easy to communicate the capability of the team and therefore takes more time, effort and cost to effectively communicate attributes than is ideal.

The launch of the Civil Trades regime will fundamentally change all of this. When people enter the industry, they will be able to commence a pathway that efficiently guides growth, and provides a standard of quality that is easily recognised. Becoming certified will enable workers to easily communicate their value and quality to potential employers in the same way that a degree shows knowledge gained, while contractors will be able to also confidently and easily communicate the ability of their workers to get a job done.

Within a set timeframe, trainees will progress along a structured and efficient pathway, while contractors will be able to attract more and better candidates, including some of those who in the past had the misconception that a career in the civil construction industry wasn’t worthwhile or valuable. The Civil Trades regime will also bring a language that adds clarity and value to the civil industry and the work done within it.

The underlying rationale of all this, is the development of our people, making them more productive, safer in their workplace, strengthened attributes for tender and competitive advantage to companies who implement the Civil Trades regime in the most complete and effective way.

If Mike had been able to go through the Civil Trades regime, his career progression would have been along a structured career pathway, allowing him to become qualified and earn a higher income earlier. Not only this, but the benefits for Mike’s employer would have started earlier also.

The Civil Trades regime will support the civil industry to continue growing and thriving with a workforce that is growing and thriving. It will enable us to engage the Upper Hutt principal and parents and career advisers around New Zealand, and tell them why a career in civil contracting is no longer a last chance employment option, but instead one that is genuinely attractive and rewarding, something that is long overdue.

NB This column was first published in October’s Contractor magazine

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