Time for bold action to get the skills we need

By Alan Pollard, chief executive, Civil Contractors NZ.

Alan Pollard CCNZ
Alan Pollard
Having access to a skilled and reliable workforce remains the most critical issue facing the civil construction sector. We are all aware of the Infrastructure Commission estimate that the infrastructure sector will be 118,000 workers short by 2024; and that is only two years away! 

With unemployment at just over three percent, and with intense competition across all sectors of the economy, it is obvious the numbers of workers needed will not be delivered from domestic sources. Employers and industry groups are doing all they can to attract people into the sector, with incentives including competitive salaries, training and development opportunities, and flexible working conditions.

In addition, employers are working with schools to promote the civil construction sector as offering a long term and rewarding career pathway; and with MSD and Corrections to create opportunities for those who may otherwise not have had the support and tools necessary to break the cycles of unemployment or crime.

The Government continually says that we must do more to attract New Zealanders, that there are plenty of people available to work if only we offered better terms and conditions, but when push comes to shove, they can’t actually direct us to where these “phantom” people are. It is disappointing that they don’t give credit to employers who are stepping up where the welfare system, for example, has failed. Rather than introduce draconian, punitive systems, how about rewarding and incentivising the vast majority of businesses who care about their workforce and who look after them very well.

It is inevitable that, with such a constrained domestic labour supply, the industry must look to migration to fill the gap. This Government appears determined to reduce the proportion of migrant workers in New Zealand. This seems largely ideologically driven and based on the flawed assumption, theoretically supported by some dubious economic commentary, that businesses have historically used migrant labour to “dumb down” wages and as a disincentive for capital investment. While that may have been true for a small number of employers, it is not true for most. Employers should not be judged by the lowest denominator. 

Our delayed and phased border opening has significantly disadvantaged New Zealand as other countries such as Australia, Canada, and even Wales mount aggressive recruitment campaigns. New Zealand had no such strategy in place. CCNZ is currently partnering with some other like-minded associations to put in place an attraction campaign targeted at addressing our worker and skills shortage and focusing on some key target markets. Ministers have responded positively to the concept, and we are hopeful that they will come on board with resources and investment to support the campaign. 

Such a campaign requires promotion and advertising (both online and in-market); a process to accept expressions of interest and to filter those expressions; a process to connect employers with candidates, including a mechanism for small to medium employers to engage; and an immigration advisory process to navigate through the complexities of the immigration system. It also relies on a supportive and facilitating immigration system.

As to the latter point, I had high hopes for the “Immigration Reset”. At a time when businesses are having to be creative and innovative in their approach to workforce planning, here was an opportunity for immigration policy to be similarly creative and courageous. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that all we are likely to see is more of the same with some minor tweaks. As they say, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. And in immigration terms that means a system that is not fit for purpose and does not support the needs of thousands of New Zealand businesses when it is needed most.

Now is the time to be bold and creative, for government and industry sectors to work together in a true partnership to find immigration solutions and settings that restore our competitiveness for globally attracting people, and that ensure that businesses can access the workers that they need to deliver on the infrastructure and construction projects that will lead our post-Covid recovery. The alternative does not bear thinking about. 

Businesses are being hammered by high inflation, material shortages, supply chain disruption, rising finance costs and worker shortages. Add to that a government labour reform programme that risks imposing substantially greater costs and creating massive uncertainty in the labour market, and it is no wonder that business and consumer confidence has plummeted. 

Working positively and productively together to address the workforce challenges will go a long way to easing some of that burden and restoring confidence in our ability to deliver a much-needed work programme. 

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