Skilled professionals in short supply in civil job market

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2017.

A strong civil market, candidate movement and local skill shortages have combined to create a high volume of vacancy activity. Jason Walker, managing director, Hays New Zealand.

MOST REGIONS WILL continue to experience an active civil job market in 2017, but employers will need to take action in response to the scarcity of local skilled professionals.

The 2016 year saw an unprecedented investment in commercial construction and transport projects across Auckland. Add the development of areas such as Pukekohe, Pokeno and Hobsonville into new subdivisions, and civil contracting vacancy activity has been, and remains, high.

Wellington’s market meanwhile moved forward slowly thanks to new highways and seismic strengthening work, with the M2PP and TG projects in particular absorbing a huge number of skilled workers.

In contrast Christchurch entered the next stage of its rebuild and so the heat went out of its civil market. In place of SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) work, the active residential sector fuelled civil needs.

In fact, net migration and population growth in 2016 put a strain on services across the country, driving investment in a number of new and upgrade projects nationwide.

The year ahead

These trends are likely to continue into 2017, with government infrastructure projects such as new roads and bridges adding to an active jobs market.

However, it is the Kaikoura earthquake of November 2016 that will have a huge impact on the civil contracting jobs market in the year ahead. For example, in the week following the earthquake our Christchurch office was called upon to urgently recruit 12 project managers with commercial, residential and infrastructure experience for an insurance company.

These people are now managing projects in the Kaikoura area and awarding work to subcontractors. In addition our Wellington office supplied 110 tradespeople and labourers for immediate earthquake clean-up work.

These are just two examples of initial staffing needs. While at the time of writing the full scale of damage and the extent of necessary repairs has yet to be determined, there’s no doubt that a large number of civil engineering, construction and trades professionals will be required in 2017 and beyond.

In other trends for 2017, Auckland will see the start of the $250 billion City Rail Link, consisting of 3.4 kilometre twin tunnels. Work is expected to continue through to 2023/24 and will create an enormous number of civil contracting job opportunities in the area. Ongoing residential subdivisions will add to vacancy activity.

With Auckland-based employers already experiencing a shortage of skilled professionals, many are talking of looking overseas for candidates, particularly the Philippines.

Highway work will continue in Wellington in 2017, while the expected commencement of the airport runway extension will add to vacancy activity. Similarly to Auckland, projects have absorbed skilled civil professionals and employers are considering sourcing people from Australia and the Philippines.

This shortage of skilled and experienced local civil professionals will be a major challenge for employers in 2017. This includes quantity surveyors and estimators, who have already seen some light salary increases as a result of demand. Land surveyors will be needed too, as will project managers with large infrastructure experience.

Civil engineers at all levels with strong technical 3D skills will be sought for land development. Many consultancies are either top heavy and require staff at this level to complete the modelling and design work, or do not have enough chartered engineers to manage projects, teams and sign off work. Demand is already so high that employers are prepared to create positions for good candidates.

Civil engineers will also be required for infrastructure work on water services and road projects, while senior CPEng level geotechnical engineers will be needed for infrastructure and building projects.

Civil tradespeople are in short supply too, especially ticketed machine operators (digger/roller/grader) for new subdivision projects and major motorway and road upgrades. Plant and machine operators with a class 2 licence or above are also sought, as are certified and CCC approved drain layers and senior concrete cutters.

Finally, the UFB rollout to new subdivisions has increased demand for senior cable joiners.

The skill shortage

In response to the local shortage of civil candidates, employers have started to create a role for those with good experience, even if they are not actively looking.

In addition, the scarcity of engineers here with experience may force employers to increase salaries for local talent in 2017.

Already top candidates receive multiple offers and employers will therefore need to move quickly and offer competitive rates if they are to secure their preferred candidate in the year ahead.

The industry also needs to encourage more young people to study and pursue civil careers. Perhaps one solution is to give apprenticeships more attention.

This is a subject I’ve been talking about for some time, and I passionately believe that gaining technical knowledge and experience in an area of candidate demand is important for a secure long-term career – and this can be achieved through an apprenticeship just as it can through a degree or postgraduate qualification.

We are in a changing world

Disruptive technologies and services, virtual technology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and self-drive vehicles may well be commonplace within the next 20 years.

A number of roles that professionals do today will be replaced. Yet with growing populations, increased longevity and global disasters both natural and manmade, there will always be a need for tradespeople and skilled professionals to design, build and maintain infrastructure, transport, housing, educational and health facilities.

Do we need to encourage more parents, teachers, students, employers and jobseekers to recognise the benefits of a civil career? And could more apprenticeships be the solution to bridging the skills gap?

It’s certainly an option worth exploring.

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