Business ministry official Saskia van Ryn says the New Zealand civil infrastructure sector is working to address the skills shortage through a partnership between Civil Contractors New Zealand, the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team and Connexis, the infrastructure industry training organization.

Game-changing initiative

At the heart of the initiative is a certification process that recognizes employees who have reached tradesperson competency. Dave Connell, president of Civil Contractors New Zealand, says the approach will be gamechanging for the industry. “With an acute skills shortage, 20 years of reconstruction coming up in Christchurch, and New Zealand just coming out of recession, trade certification could not have come at a better time."

The scheme is also backed by some of the country's biggest contractors, among them McConnell Dowell. Marianne Rogers, the firm's civil trades project manager, says certification "will become the backbone for skills development for the industry."

Initial enrollments are expected in late 2015, with a full competency-recognition program to be launched in 2016. An estimated 30,000 construction workers were employed in greater Christchurch in the last quarter of 2014, up from the 15,000 estimated pre-quake.

There has been a massive increase in construction filled jobs over the last three years. From September 2010 to August 2014, filled jobs in the construction sector grew by 95.4%, almost double pre-earthquake levels.

Yet despite these impressive figures, some 43% of businesses surveyed in Canterbury still find it difficult to find skilled labor. There are numerous incentives, such as a one-time bonus to relocate to area for full-time work and trade apprenticeship programs aimed at Maori and Pacific island nativesompetition for workers also is coming from other parts of the country. Auckland, the country’s biggest city by population, is a hive of construction activity.

Chris Hunter, managing director of locally-based commercial builder NZ Strong Construction, says the city "is going through a period where demand is a major issue down the supply chain. He notes that "overlapping trades in commercial, civil, and residential projects are stretched to the limit. The demand for all these trades is overheated," spurred by the housing boom.

As a commercial builder trying to get prices on concrete, reinforcing steel, structural steel, precast units and carpentry, for example, we’re finding it near on impossible, and we have to engage extra early, to understand these subcontractors’ workloads," says Hunter. "This ends up dictating our entire program and critical path as never before. Specialist trades are starting to struggle, and getting a procurement method that involves these trades early is key to main contractors bidding for big projects."

Meanwhile, some Christchurch area contractors are going to extremes to entice workers. Cook Brothers Construction’s Canterbury regional manager Grant Harris says his company was looking at offering season passes to New Zealand's ski fields as one inducement.