The Ara jobs hub will create work for South Aucklanders, writes Bill Bennett.

A$2 billion upgrade programme will transform Auckland Airport over the next five years.

Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood says: "It's the biggest upgrade since the formation of the airport 50 years ago. We're going through a significant growth phase. It took 48 years for the airport to get to 16 million passengers in a year. It took only another four years to add five million passengers".

Giving people jobs and skills that will last them for the long term is a fantastic by-product of those investments.
Giving people jobs and skills that will last them for the long term is a fantastic by-product of those investments.

He says fast growth triggers investment. "There's 55,000 square metres of either new or refurbished terminal space. To put this in perspective, it's 1.5 times the space of Auckland's new international convention centre. We've extended a pier. We're now moving on to a new international check-in area and building a new domestic jet terminal.

Advertisement

"There's a new car parking building and new hotels. Over time we'll have an integrated international and domestic terminal", he says.

One challenge facing Littlewood is how the upgrade will be executed and, more to the point, who is going to do the work when people with the necessary expertise are in short supply.

He says: "Where are the skills and resources to deliver these projects? This is where from a government and private industry point of view we've got to join up. We need to make sure we grow the skills of those available for work and bring those who are looking for work into the workforce in the right way.

"We're almost certainly going to need to bring in some skills from overseas. This may be planners and engineers or construction expertise."

The problem is that New Zealand is not the only country with an infrastructure boom. Australia is in a similar position, so is the UK and Canada. Littlewood says the US will soon face similar conditions. Construction is an international market with a global supply chain. That means New Zealand has to compete against other countries to attract the needed resources. Littlewood says there are no easy answers and New Zealand will need to attract good people to come here to deliver projects.

Part of the answer lies in the suburbs immediately around the airport. Littlewood says the airport and the area surrounding it employ more than 20,000 people in around 800 businesses.

He says; "It is one of the largest sources of employment opportunities in Auckland and it is directly adjacent to one of the largest areas of unemployment: South Auckland. What we've been trying to do is bridge that gap. To tackle the challenge, we started something called Ara. The word means pathways in Te Reo Māori."

Littlewood says Ara is a jobs and skills hub, on one level matching people who are looking for jobs with employers who have vacancies to fill. It goes further than that he says: "If you are looking for a job, but you don't have the specific skills for this vacancy, we'll give the micro-training for that role. We set it up as a trust in 2017 in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Education and MBIE and our construction partners. Other partners include the Tertiary Education Commission, Auckland Council, businesses, tertiary institutes, industry training organisations and training providers."

Advertisement

The programme has already proved powerful. In its first year of operation there were more than 1080 training incidents and 215 people have been placed in jobs. Of those, more than 80 per cent came from South Auckland. "The amazing thing is that almost half of those people have come off benefits. That was last year and was mainly focused on construction. In the last three months we've placed 125 people.

"We've had so much interest from other employers in the area that we've extended Ara to include logistic firms, retail and hospitality. It covers local schools around the airport.

They look for students who are not going to go down the university route, but those who want to find their first job or maybe a trade apprenticeship, those who are looking to pick up future skills," he says.

One of the hardest things about any programme of this nature is that the wider economy tends to move through stop-go cycles. This is especially true with construction projects which typically only need workers for a limited time. Littlewood says the difference with Ara and Auckland Airport is there is a pipeline of projects that stretches out for at least five years and closer to ten across a variety of disciplines.

He says this means a young person can start, extend and grow their career all in one place. For many of them it is close to where they live, so they don't have to commute all the way downtown to work.

For Littlewood, the important aspect of Ara is it means the airport's infrastructure boom pays a social benefit across generations. "Giving people jobs and skills that will last them for the long term is a fantastic by-product of those investments."

There's a bigger picture. Littlewood is co-chair of the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum which worked on establishing a trans-Tasman infrastructure pipeline two years ago. The idea is for a single repository of information about major infrastructure projects.

He says it is public and people can look at what projects are coming, what stage they are at, how certain they are and whether they are funded.

"This deals with the uncertainty where construction and engineering firms would worry about scaling up to meet demand by investing in apprenticeships or training programmes when they didn't know what to expect.

"So, a public transport specialist company might see their big project coming to an end in, say, New South Wales and know that there would be an opportunity in New Zealand. If they can see there is 10 or 15 years of work across New Zealand and Australia, then they'll be willing to build a team with expertise. It means we can leverage off the scale of our neighbours, while they get to enhance their capacity."