Diana Clement looks at the reasons behind Auckland’s construction industry skill shortage.
New Zealand needs an extra 30,000 workers within two years to cope with a huge boom in the sector and any large construction companies such as Hawkins, Downer
Group, Kalmar Construction, and others must look overseas for workers.
As well as simply building sufficient housing for the region’s population, workers are needed for projects such as the City Rail Link, New Zealand International Convention Centre, a second harbour crossing, new hotels and many other construction/infrastructure ventures.
The shortage spans project managers, project directors, commercial managers, quantity surveyors, health and safety professionals, and a wide range of labour.
It’s not just the big names. The construction worker shortage hits virtually every business in the sector right down to one-man bands that are deciding whether or not to take on an apprentice.
The difficulty for the industry is that training follows economic cycles and the trainers are in effect the employers, supplemented through polytechnics.
After the GFC when demand for construction workers was decimated, fewer apprentices were taken on, says Warwick Quinn, chief executive of industry training organisation BCITO, which develops and implements industry qualifications for the building and construction sector.
“What happens during a significant downturn is you shed apprentices,” says Quinn. “If there is a 10 per cent drop in construction, we drop 30 per cent in training.”
Quinn says around 90 per cent of construction firms are small businesses of five or fewer employees. “They need security of work for an apprenticeship, so they hunker down until they have confidence to take people on, which means there is an 18-month to two-year lag.”
Issues with trade training
Gérard Ball, building surveying manager at Babbage Consultants has strong views about trades training in New Zealand.
One of the issues, he says, is that the large construction companies subcontract to other businesses and as a result no longer provide large-scale training to apprentices.
“Subcontractors are just hired guns from one contract to the next,” says Ball. “You end up with a demotivated, itinerant workforce, which has a huge impact.”
Right hands to the tools
Getting the right hands on the tools and bums on seats in training institutions isn’t easy. Ball says the problem goes right back to schools promoting tertiary training as the ultimate goal for all.
“When my son left school he was given the impression if you are not smart enough to go to university then learning a trade was somehow second-best. (Trade training) is presented as a secondary alternative to year 12 and year 13 students who don’t get university entrance,” says Ball.
One issue that Ball’s son encountered was a sizeable percentage of the apprentices in block courses were giggling and throwing things around rather than learning.
“They are not really there for the right reasons.”
Are institutes providing the right skill mixes?
Construction has changed a lot over the last 30 years and training is playing catch-up.
BCITO is seeing a growing demand for bite-sized skills for workers employed, delivering single tasks.
Up until recently funding rules meant that ITOs couldn’t offer micro-credentials, says Quinn. Yet many construction-related companies can’t offer the full scope of work needed for an apprenticeship.
“We work in a box provided by government,” says Quinn. “That box needs to be more flexible.”
A BCITO scheme offering micro-credentials is due to launch shortly once logistics with NZQA and other government bodies have been finalised, says Quinn.
Micro-credentials acknowledge skills and study at a level other than that of certificates, diploma and degrees.
“It gets a wider cohort on the ladder,” says Quinn. He expects some will go on to do a full apprenticeship once they are in the system, but the micro-credentials will be qualifications in their own right. NZQA is already running three micro-credential pilot projects.
Strategies to improve the situation
There is no lack of businesses and government/ nongovernmental bodies with ideas and programmes to solve the construction industry staffing problem.
Quinn would like to see trades training raised in status by NZQA and in schools. He says as well as the presumption that going to university will result in a better outcome there is an issue with the NZQA framework, which values a trade below degrees, sending the wrong message to potential construction workers.
Then at the other end of the apprenticeship, the qualified trades’ people lack the supervisory and management skills to move up, Quinn says.
“We would like to provide a pathway between being trade qualified and becoming a supervisor, foreman, project manager.
“In the past those skills effectively resided in another qualification. Providing weekend or residential courses could solve that gap. People want to do it at a time, pace and convenient location for them.”
Employers, industry groups and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #BuildAKL, to entice young people into construction and infrastructure.
The campaign is designed to raise the number and diversity of roles within the sector, from entry-level jobs to apprenticeships and skilled jobs requiring qualifications. It focuses on 16 to 24-year-olds, women, and Māori and Pasifika.
Others such as Fletchers are also focusing on young people still in the schooling system by providing work experience to some high school students.