Quake city needs army of rebuilders

By Helen Frances

Barry Akers, a Fletcher spokesman, has said it is estimated 6000-8000 building workers are needed. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Barry Akers, a Fletcher spokesman, has said it is estimated 6000-8000 building workers are needed. Photo / Geoff Sloan

The construction and engineering industries in Canterbury have experienced a surge in advertised skilled job vacancies over the past year, despite recent lulls in the employment market.

The Department of Labour's Jobs Online reports that, on an annual basis, Canterbury has experienced the strongest growth of any region (up by 50.9 per cent) as a result of earthquake recovery activities.

Fletcher EQR and Opus International say they are very busy, although there are delays in the next phase of reconstruction as issues around planning, aftershocks, insurance cover and other factors are resolved.

Fletcher spokesman Barry Akers says about 3000 to 4000 people are employed at present, mainly local contracting firms and their staff.

"There are now 953 accredited contractors and just under 7900 people have been through our safety induction," Akers says.

The induction process includes the 410-strong project management team directly employed by Fletcher.

"About $40 million is being paid monthly to contractors, approximately two-thirds of which is labour cost." He expected a "substantial" rise in the activity level over the next half-year.

About 21,000 full-scope repairs are either completed or in progress at the moment - separate from around 40,000 emergency and heating repairs completed during the year.

The 20 Christchurch hubs, increasing to 24, are now gearing up their own project management teams, preparing to work with an expanded contractor force and a larger volume of claims. A further 50 project management staff will start soon.

There are currently 25 vacancies to fill, including project and works managers, quantity surveyors, contract supervisors, community liaison officer, administration staff and EQC loss adjustors. Fletcher is also employing people from Winz.

"We estimate that around 40-50 per cent of our current needs are painters and plasterers, with other key trades being carpenters and bricklayers," Akers says.

"At present we have more available contractors and their staff than we can employ fulltime, given the workflow.

"As the workflow increases over the next few months, this will reverse and we will have a shortage. We are already starting to see pressure in finding painters."

Akers says this is undoubtedly the single largest regional business growth and employment opportunity seen in New Zealand in our lifetimes.

"That doesn't apply just to the Fletcher EQR project. The reality is that all residential, commercial and infrastructure sectors will be part of the growth opportunity.

"We estimate it could take 6000-8000 building workers in total to deliver on our project, dependent on the length of the repair programme."

Peter Mathewson, Opus International's New Zealand managing director, says the company has a full complement of 200 fully employed engineering staff in Christchurch.

Opus International covers the whole gamut of engineering - across civil, mechanical and electrical.

"In the first couple of weeks, anybody who walked in the door and asked us to give them a hand, we gave them a hand," Mathewson says.

"The basilica was another big piece of work for us right from the very start and we have worked on it fulltime since September."

The firm has used people from among its 1700 staff from Invercargill to Whangarei, mobilising senior structural engineers from Auckland and Wellington in particular. Mathewson "guesstimates" 300 staff from around the country have been involved to date in the recovery process.

"We are predicting an extra 150 to 200 staff will be needed at least over the next five years."

He expects a shortage of structural and geotechnical engineers. "We need to service the business-as-usual market as well, so certainly the rehabilitation of Christchurch will require us to have seismic-qualified structural engineers and geotechnical engineers."

Mathewson says a mix of experienced and entry-level people is needed.

The company normally takes on 40 graduates or more a year across New Zealand and envisages taking on at least a further 20 with the rebuild.

He encourages young women who are good at mathematics and physics to consider engineering as a serious career option when leaving school.

Infratrain chief executive Philip Aldridge says emergency work on infrastructure has been a big focus for companies in Christchurch.

When the rebuild gets under way, an estimated 1000 more people will be needed to work in civil infrastructure.

"We'll be first off the blocks," Aldridge says. "We obviously have to get the pipes and earthworks done before you start building houses."

He says there has been an expansion in the temporary labour market at the less skilled end and, even before the earthquakes, there was high demand for project manager and engineering technician levels.

To help build labour supply across all trades, the seven industry training organisations are working with the three South Island polytechnics.

"We've [Infratrain] got a programme with Christchurch Institute of Technology where they do 12 weeks' theory and work experience and finish off [training] in a job," Aldridge says.

Mainzeal and engineering firm MWH have formed a joint venture company to project-manage works for Vero and AA Insurance.

Paul Blackler, Mainzeal's general manager, Christchurch, says the company has grown from 75 to 128 managed operations.

Both Mainzeal and Opus sought staff in Britain, foreseeing skill gaps in the New Zealand market.

Opus has sent seismic specialists overseas to work with UK engineers on aspects of Christchurch projects.

Blackler says when the company advertised in June, 750 candidates applied and 30 were employed, 15 of whom are settling to work in Christchurch. Mainzeal has, however, "quite strategically" employed most of its subcontractors locally, a policy that Fletcher, Opus and others share.

Stephen Kleehammer, domestic delivery manager for MWH-Mainzeal, says the scale and volume of work is "mind-blowing" - but also exciting.

"Reviewing the performance and failure of buildings allows the construction industry to be at the forefront of new and advancement of existing techniques in the ways buildings are constructed - obviously with earthquake strengthening in mind.

"It also provides Canterbury with the opportunity to apply environmentally sustainable building design."

- NZ Herald

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