Skills shortage hampers rebuild

By Helen Frances

Engineers are on the most wanted species list when it comes to meeting Christchurch's needs

Some 1000 recruits are needed to train for work on roads, fresh water, stormwater and other infrastructure. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Some 1000 recruits are needed to train for work on roads, fresh water, stormwater and other infrastructure. Photo / Geoff Sloan

I drove past a modest three-storey building this morning and have never seen so much steel in my life - that's the new Christchurch," says Kevin Eder, founder and managing director of Tradestaff.

He says work in the Christchurch rebuild is, however, still largely in the "horizontal" or infrastructure phase, and his company could place a dozen excavator operators tomorrow. "There's still a dire shortage of people like excavator operators and Class 4 truck drivers, and carpenters will be always be required."

SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) runs the "For Real" training programme that can fast track trainees into jobs in the infrastructure rebuild. The website says 1,000 recruits are needed to train for work on the roads, fresh water, wastewater, stormwater and other infrastructure such as bridges and retaining walls. Infrastructure repair work needs to be mostly complete before the above-ground rebuild can start. Those who pass the application process will receive full training, course fees paid, a job and on-the-job training, a national qualification, "good income and career prospects" and transferable skills.

In terms of above-ground construction, Christchurch has always had a buoyant market, Eder says. So, within the market itself, there is quite a bit of capacity for the work - "we are busy but not desperate".

Christchurch was well served before the earthquakes by several significant companies. "They are picking up the slack at the moment and we are supplying workers to them."

But once the rebuild goes vertical in a big way and construction starts on the anchor and major government-funded projects, Eder thinks there will be greater need for site managers, steel fixers and concreters.

He says the residential market is busy, particularly in suburban sub-divisions, adding that commercial is an interesting beast. "A year ago, we were saying it would probably be very busy now. Now we are all probably saying it will be busy in a year or so." Eder says the Christchurch rebuild is an unprecedented situation with developments up to 10 times the usual size. And the timing of the anchor projects is another factor that could create a bottleneck. "The timeline around the completion of the anchor projects is unrealistic. They are talking about having them all under way at the same time and there just isn't the capacity in the city."

The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) says a changing of the guard is taking place in the Christchurch rebuild.

IPENZ Christchurch branch chairman Chris Maguire says several engineers flown in to complete design work after the 2011 earthquakes are returning to Wellington or Auckland because of growing demand there and new engineers are arriving in Christchurch to replace them.

He says dozens more structural and geo-technical engineers are needed for the vertical rebuild over the next one to two years. However, design engineers are able to work remotely rather than being based in Christchurch.

IPENZ chief executive Andrew Cleland says some of the work in Christchurch is not able to be carried out as quickly as people would like because of the high volume of work and not enough engineers with the right competence for technically demanding work. Immigrant engineers have helped meet some of the demand but take time to get up to speed with local requirements for critical work.

The shortage of engineers is not confined to Christchurch though. There is a nationwide demand for engineering expertise. Engineering disciplines at Immigration New Zealand in the category of long-term skills' shortages include structural, civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical.

IPENZ says the shortage of engineers is the consequence of a long-term under-investment in engineering graduates. The percentage of total graduates who choose engineering is lower in New Zealand - 6 per cent - than any other country in the OECD, which averages 13 per cent.

Cleland says IPENZ has warned about this shortage for many years and is promoting the profession to the younger generation by encouraging the uptake of science and technology subjects in secondary schools.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment website (Immigration) also flags a need for quantity surveyors and project managers, and some demand for tradesmen such as painters and carpenters.

Canterbury labour market figures reflect the amount of work being done in the rebuild with CareersNZ noting the jobless rate is 4.4 per cent as opposed to the national figure of 6.4 per cent. To help address the need for workers, the Skills and Employment Hub has been set up by the ministry, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, the Ministry of Social Development and the Tertiary Education Commission.

- NZ Herald

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