Professionalisation – the need for progressive thinking

Contrafed blog with Connexis opinionby Helmut Modlik, CEO of Connexis

Professionalisation of trades is a global trend driven among other things by the need to attract and retain scarce talent, and increasing demands from customers for quality, safety and value for money. It is certain to be front of mind for many Civil contractors and their staff through the coming year.

The Civil Industry can rightly congratulate itself on progress in this regard in 2015. The support for and launch of the new Civil Trades regime was a watershed moment for the industry. It is fair to say however, that we are still very far from where we need to be. To achieve the benefits of professionalising the Civil Industry, “progressive thinking” is needed by many more employers and workers alike.

First though it’s important to clarify what I mean by professionalisation. In broad terms, I’m referring to the enhanced performance, productivity and better outcomes that come from having a workforce trained and qualified to a consistently high standard, recognised and acknowledged by all. A professional industry is characterised by a body of technical knowledge, standards, membership and accountability for performance, and generally more sophisticated work practices and technologies.

A number of local factors are driving the need to professionalise the New Zealand Civil Industry. The most significant of these is the sheer scale of investment planned in New Zealand’s infrastructure over the next few years. The 30 Year New Zealand Infrastructure Plan released last August identifies the need for a $110 billion investment in infrastructure over the next 10 years. In addition, last July NZTA announced a planned $13.9 billion programme of investment for our land transport system over the next three years. This huge demand for Civil infrastructure is driving large scale projects, requiring large scale participants and sophisticated responses.

Large scale projects demand the ability to embrace (if not lead) developments in technology and best practice. ‘Rough and ready’ cannot sustainably compete in such an environment, as work practices become increasingly complex and required to be at a consistently high standard.

Another related local imperative for increased professionalisation is the heightened Health and safety obligations on all employers from 2016. This will see a sharp shift from the ‘she’ll be right’ thinking of the past to much greater safety awareness, more stringent requirements and confirmation of competence. In relation to the latter for example, a certified Civil Tradesperson by definition is competent to build and maintain Civil infrastructure. The competence (from a health and safety perspective) of all other Civil workers, will be an entirely different matter to explain and confirm if required in future.

Professionalisation is also inherently linked to corporatisation, and the Civil Industry has seen movement in both respects. Larger players in the market enjoy the advantages of economies of scale in everything they do. This means that in many instances, particularly in larger markets and for larger projects, smaller players struggle to compete. But corporatisation isn’t just about scale, it is about sophistication and specialisation. Indeed, corporatisation is to companies what professionalisation is to workers!

Every Civil business started out as a man with a digger and a truck, and small to medium sized operators still play a significant role in our market. However things are increasingly difficult for smaller businesses, and though they are still around – and often very successful – they are no longer typical of the Industry. While there will always be a place for smaller operators, all operators – regardless of size – must increasingly embrace the corporatisation or improvement of their business and professionalisation of their workforce if they are to survive and thrive.

This brings us back to the “progressive thinking” needed to change and improve. For the professionalisation of the Civil Industry, it is vital that we see a change in attitude and acceptance of the need to be Civil Trade certified. This is how other constructor sectors operate – with one standardised recognition system for all. One standard of excellence. When an electrician becomes trade qualified, everyone – the industry, customers, and the electrician him or herself – knows exactly what that means. By contrast in Civil, individual companies dictate what makes their employees competent or ‘qualified’, choosing what to learn and what to ignore. We wouldn’t accept such an approach from our electricians or plumbers for example, why should it be acceptable for those constructing our most significant infrastructure assets? The truth is it shouldn’t, and increasingly won’t be acceptable in future.

Deciding to move away from these ‘local’ or ‘internal’ versions of competence, is the first step towards professionalising the industry. As observed, trade professionalisation is increasingly the way of the world. It isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it the exclusive domain of the Civil Industry. We have a quite way to go before we achieve our vision of a professionalised Civil Trade, however I hope that you will join the rest of the Civil Industry on this journey, beginning with a decision today to find out more about what you need to do to improve and strengthen your business by committing your workforce to the Civil Trade.

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