Meeting the people challenge

Contrafed blog with Connexis opinion

HELMUT MODLIK, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, CONNEXIS

IT SEEMS THAT EVERYWHERE we look, the signs are that the infrastructure and construction upcycle we are in will be prolonged and substantial.

Major roading and energy projects, the replacement of aging water assets, the roll out of ultra-fast broadband, and the high profile coverage of New Zealand’s housing crisis are driving a tremendous demand for infrastructure and related workers. In recent weeks the relative safety, stability and prosperity of New Zealand has raised even higher the prospect of increased inbound migration. This will further fuel the demand for housing and infrastructure, and it is hard to see it slowing down any time soon.

This situation is increasing the pressure on our industry, which is already stretched to capacity meeting the current level of demand, let alone any further increase in future. I recently attended a Civil Trades board meeting, where the president Dave Connell asked, “Is there anyone here who ‘isn’t’ looking for apprentices?” The answer around the room was a resounding “no”. Throughout New Zealand, and with very few exceptions, employers are trying – and struggling – to find the workers they need right now.

While this problem of finding the right people is not a new one, it is surely well on its way to reaching crisis point in this current upcycle. It is of course not just impacting on civil constructors – builders, plumbers and electricians are also struggling. The issue of finding the right people has become a challenge for the whole of New Zealand. And it is only going to get worse. That is, unless we do something radical – and soon. There are however, no silver bullets, and all scenarios will require innovative thinking, collaboration and industry buy-in.

For example, employers and government should be more open minded about who the ‘right people’ are here in New Zealand. Rather than bringing in workers from overseas, as an increasing number of employers are doing, industry and New Zealand as a whole would be better off focusing on identifying and developing New Zealanders. Women, for example, account for 48 percent of the population, but make up only around four percent of the trade and technical trainees in infrastructure-related sectors, despite steady growth in the numbers of females entering these industries in recent years. Connexis is already working to increase female participation in the infrastructure industries, and we have the networks, candidates and ability to support and assist industry employers looking to do the same.

We also need to get better at forming linkages and joining up the organisations that are able and willing to contribute to a resolution. A number of collaborations between government agencies and industry have already been successful in developing programmes to get people work ready, licensed and drug free. For example, the pre-employment courses run by WINZ in partnership with Te Puni Kokiri, facilitated by Connexis and supported by industry (through hiring successful trainees) have greatly benefited Maori and Pasifika, as well as employers. At a local level, employers who are seeking young people to join their workforce would be wise to develop relationships with local schools and other organisations within their community such as sports clubs.

We also have to be more strategic in our efforts to attract the right people to our workforce. For the very first time in our history, the civil sector now has a recognised trade qualification – Civil Trades – which enables us to promote infrastructure as a career rather than just a job. Offering an attractive career to both young people and career changers is a game changer, but requires employers to support its implementation. This means that the civil industry as a whole must agree what competence looks like. Until now, the civil industry has been rather ad hoc in its approach to defining and recognising competence. The variety in standards has been huge, ranging from rough and ready through to sophisticated and professional. Many employers have proprietary in-house standards, which carry little or no weight outside of their organisation. The emergence of Civil Trades is set to change all of this, with one national standard around what competency looks like and how it is recognised.

Civil Trades and the resulting enhanced industry skill level and marketability will benefit everyone involved. Employers will know what they are getting, employees will have a recognised trade and transferable skills. The wider industry, asset owners and New Zealand as a whole will also reap the benefits.

The increasing demand for infrastructure will undoubtedly provide challenges for industry. However, with a willingness to innovate, collaborate and to act strategically, including supporting the emergence of Civil Trades, the timing to meet the people challenge couldn’t be better. Civil Trades is a vital component of a strategic solution to current issues. In order for it to be effective, industry employers need to step up and increase the pace of uptake.

The time to do it is now.

-This article was first published in August 2016’s Contractor magazine.

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