Eyes on the reconstruction bonanza

By James Fuller

Last year's Christchurch earthquake left 185 dead and a city devastated. As the rebuild gathers pace, we talk to Bay of Plenty tradesmen who are heading to the South Island and discover what their departure could mean for this region.

The Christchurch earthquake could leave the Bay of Plenty with a shortage of tradespeople and higher prices as skilled workers head south for the rebuild.

The recession has meant reduced job opportunities for the Bay's tradespeople, forcing them to look elsewhere. Estimates of the number of workers required once the Christchurch rebuild begins in earnest, from New Zealand and overseas, range from 20,000-45,000.

One Tauranga painter and decorator heading to Canterbury next week, who did not want to be named, said: "It's either Australia or Christchurch at the moment".

The 38-year-old said the reason behind his move was "heaps more work and higher pay" with wages "up to 30 per cent higher" in the South Island.

The painter and decorator of 12 years said many others were considering the move, and a shortage of Tauranga tradespeople could be expected.

"It will also get to the stage where prices will increase here to cope with the demand. There's always been an over-supply of tradespeople here because it's where everyone wants to live."

Geoff Campbell, Tradestaff Bay of Plenty area manager, told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend he did not believe an exodus had begun yet. "While some uncertainty in both the availability of accommodation and the rebuild kicking off properly has held candidates back ... there is likely to be more pressure on local labour supply."

A search of online job site Seek showed 15 times as many construction jobs currently advertised in Canterbury, which had 232, over the Bay of Plenty, with just 15.

A similar search of Trade Me construction and architecture positions showed 302 listings for Canterbury to 39 in the Bay.

Labourers in the Bay of Plenty could expect $13.50-14 per hour, whereas Canterbury labourers were being offered $18-24 per hour. Other listings were for asphalt layers, excavator operators, painters, GIB stoppers, drain layers, glazing co-ordinators and quantity surveyors.

Cantabrian firms offered qualified carpenters $22-30 per hour, concrete placers $22-28 per hour and site managers $35-40. A working foreman could expect salaries of $65-80,000, a project manager $90-130,000 and quantity surveyors around $85-90,000.

Seek listed three jobs paying in excess of $150,000 and Trade Me advertised 20 jobs with $100,000-plus salaries.

Seek has also revealed that Canterbury had bucked a national trend of largely flat salary growth with increases of 3.6 per cent in the first six months of 2012. The average pay packet for Cantabrians rose more than $2000 to $66,415. Janet Faulding, general manager of Seek New Zealand, said the figures were no surprise "given the strong demand for workers to support the rebuild".

Westpac Bank this week launched its "Christchurch Calling" programme to service the thousands of tradespeople who will be moving to the city - a one-stop shop of local information (such as schools, accommodation, hiring employers, financial services and insurance), specialist staff and a tailored financial services package.

Ben Sam, who founded Daddy Cool Painters & Decorators seven years ago, has been in Christchurch for six weeks. He said people in the Bay of Plenty had "put their money back in their pockets" since the recession started and work had dried up.

Mr Sam took three fellow Tauranga painters with him.

"Fortunately none of us had any real ties in Tauranga apart from myself with the business.

"I know a few guys here with families and they generally do six weeks on, two weeks off. You can afford to do that, fly home and see the family for a few days."

Mr Sam is keeping his Tauranga business running with "one van and a man" and said he hoped business would pick up there in the summer. However, he did not regret his move south.

"It's very easy down here, it's all set up for you, really ... The work's guaranteed. I've been told there's 10 years' work here at least."

The 42-year-old, originally from Northern Ireland, said wages were also higher in Canterbury.

"A qualified painter can earn $25-plus per hour. I'm paying one of my guys $30 an hour and up in Tauranga you'd be looking at $22-$25 before tax."

He was far from alone in heading away from the Bay. "One man I know has moved seven painters down here and some of the larger construction firms are moving people down as well."

Rob Gartshore, South Island manager of Tauranga-based construction, interiors and joinery firm Gartshore, said the attraction for workers heading south was less about wage difference and more about consistency and number of hours.

"The wages are slightly higher but it's really the consistency and length of hours where people will be making their money. They can work 50-60 hour weeks here, week after week, where you're working a 40-hour week in the Bay of Plenty."

The firm established a branch in Christchurch two years ago. There are 30 workers employed, covering the range of plumbers, electricians, GIB workers, painters, builders and tilers, with 12 of these coming from the Bay of Plenty.

Mr Gartshore said there had been a gradual rise in the numbers moving to Christchurch for work from all over the country. This trend had increased over the last three-to-six months. The firm had purchased properties to accommodate the workers.

"There are a lot of rogue tradesmen down here at the moment but they are gradually getting weeded out through Fletcher EQR, where basically if you're not up to scratch you will be found out. For us, it's about surrounding yourself with good, quality tradesmen."

Some of the Gartshore workers had decided to relocate permanently. "Some of the younger, single guys have decided to stay on down here. We work on a roster system so those with families usually have three weeks on and then head back for four days off. It's up to them though.

"There's certainly five years' Fletcher EQR residential work out there and more in commercial."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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