Luring skilled Kiwis back home

By David Maida

As Christchurch moves from demolition into rebuild mode, the demand for semi-skilled workers will give way to a demand for architects, engineers and commercial tradespeople.
Photo / Mark Mitchell
As Christchurch moves from demolition into rebuild mode, the demand for semi-skilled workers will give way to a demand for architects, engineers and commercial tradespeople. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Recruiters are struggling to fill staff shortages, says David Maida

The rebuilding of the country's second-largest city has seen skill shortages skewed significantly towards construction and trades, with spin-offs in other areas.

Jason Walker, managing director of Hays New Zealand, says a recent survey of its clients and candidates highlighted gaps in technical engineering roles such as engineering design, civil design, structural design, quantity surveying and geotechnical engineering.

"The estimation is a $30 billion spend in the construction market in Christchurch in the next 10 years," Walker said. "If they were to rebuild every single commercial building that was demolished, they would have to hand over one completely finished commercial building every four days."

It's hard to over-emphasise the demand the quakes have created for skilled workers. "When the quakes hit, a number of engineering companies were laying off staff and making a significant number redundant.

It was pretty much the saving grace. Out of the chaos, it really has created an opportunity for the domestic market to weather what's been happening internationally."

For recruiters, it's all hands on deck. Hays is going through its Asia Pacific database to drill down for needed skills. Staff are being placed in London to pre-screen candidates from Europe, with expat Kiwis the prime target.

As Christchurch moves from demolition mode to construction and rebuild, the demand for blue-collar, semi-skilled workers will give way to a demand for architects, engineers and commercial tradespeople. Counting the damage and calculating the rebuild has also driven demand for accountants, who are needed for everything from business planning to strategic planning.

The exodus of skilled workers from Canterbury has also left a number of vacancies, which Walker says are significantly harder to fill. "I've doubled [staff numbers] in the last 12 months and we're going to be doubling them again in the next 12 months - just our own, just to try and accommodate the clients who are down there demanding great candidates."

The Christchurch quakes have also created demand for customer service staff - both customer-facing and in contact centres throughout the country. Insurance companies, banks and finance companies have been inundated by customer inquiries. Walker says it's not as easy as you might think to bring in contact centre workers. "There is often a credit check which needs to be done for certain individuals, particularly if they're working in the financial services market. We find a lot of them don't get through just for minor problems, which elevates the skills issue that we're having."

Financial services companies often adhere to strict global standards when hiring, but Hays recommends local employers be as flexible as they can to minimise the effects of the skill shortages. Its survey showed employers are recruiting based on a candidate's potential rather than experience. Some 24 per cent of employers said they have frequently recruited unskilled workers and trained them into a role. A further 55 per cent said they have occasionally done so.

The recession has also hidden many skill shortages but, as New Zealand hopefully recovers from the downturn, demand for talent should become more evident. In the healthcare sector, there are such significant skill shortages that many recruitment companies don't recruit in this area because it can be so expensive trying to source doctors and nurses from overseas.

IT professionals are always in demand, but 2012 will really see a skill shortage in this area, particularly with regard to telecommunications. This is mainly due to the growth of 2 Degrees and the splitting of Telecom.

"There is a lot of deregulation happening already in the coms market - anything to do with .net or the design of web tools and iPhone/smart technology - we're seeing a high demand in that," Walker said.

Many companies which have not authorised projects to upgrade their network infrastructure during the worst of the slowdown are now giving these projects the green light.

"It's suddenly created an upsurge in demand for your information technology specialists. We've seen demand really go through the roof for architects, software developers and mobile professionals within the IT market."

Since these same professionals are in demand worldwide, it's a big ask to recruit them. Walker will likely expand Hays' staff in Europe to focus on recruiting expat Kiwis back home.

New Zealand's mining industry also has significant skill shortages. Drilling engineers and diesel mechanics are in high demand.

"There is particularly a lot of work on the West Coast at the present time," Walker said. "There are a couple of large Australian businesses looking to move into the area as well to take on some of the projects and some of the work."

There are hundreds of positions available in the mining sector, which is highly competitive internationally. Australian miners might be highly paid and receive free accommodation and meals in a purpose-built resort, but they might also be a five-day drive to the nearest settlement. Walker hopes to attract miners to the West Coast for the lifestyle.

"You'd rather work by the ocean with a bit of hunting - [it's] a nicer sort of lifestyle than working in the middle of the desert somewhere," he said.

- NZ Herald

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