Industry-led, with government support

Alan Pollard, Chief Executive, Civil Contractors New Zealand.

In May 2021, Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash addressed an audience of government, industry, and media (on behalf of Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi who was ill at the time), to announce a reset of immigration policy settings.

The need for a reset, according to the government, was the reliance of businesses on imported lower-skilled labour to suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work. 

The Minister relied on a poorly researched and ill-informed piece of work conducted independently on behalf of the Productivity Commission, which supported this conclusion. 

There are some examples where this holds true. But migrant labour plays an important role. Migrants were essential for the country to recover from the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes. We are all descended from migrants. To generalise about employers taking advantage with respect to all migrant labour is simply nonsense.

Central to the Government agenda to increase productive investment and create meaningful and rewarding jobs for New Zealanders, is the concept of an Industry Transformation Plan. The question at hand is whether this should be government-led.

As far back as 2018, the Government’s Construction Skills Action Plan focused on government and industry working together to better introduce and develop new workers within the country to the construction industry. This plan was centred around government support for industry-led change.

In January 2020, the Construction Sector Accord produced a transformation plan, building on these themes. This plan identified actions focused on building skills and diversity; fairer contracts; a comprehensive pipeline; sharing good practice; industry leadership; improving consent; and better health, safety, and well-being.

The Government expects industry transformation plans will have the outcome of industries reducing reliance on migrant labour, particularly lower skilled migrant labour, by creating opportunities for New Zealanders to enter the industry and developing long-term rewarding career pathways. 

Alongside this, the adoption of new and emerging technologies will reduce a significant reliance on people (particularly migrants); and the balance of labour required by an industry will be through more targeted migration of higher skilled, productive and valued labour.

CCNZ’s work programme is specifically addressing these two key priorities. 

We are investing heavily in workforce development, looking at how to better attract, retain and grow people in the industry. This starts in schools, promoting the industry as offering exciting and rewarding careers. It includes developing curriculum and resources to support teaching construction skills in the school system. 

We will continue to promote EPIC Careers in Infrastructure and attract new workers from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences and show young people and their advisors where to start successful careers in the industry. 

We are exploring how to turn the Infrastructure Skills Centre into an industry wide programme, providing new entrants with the foundational skills and capabilities. And we will reinvigorate Civil Trades as the sought-after and highly valued certification programme that was envisioned at its commencement.

CCNZ has conducted extensive consultation across the civil construction industry to understand the issues the industry faced in helping new entrants join the workforce, and how these people can develop into skilled workers. We are in the process of hiring a Workforce Development Manager to lead this portfolio of work, a reflection of the high priority workforce development has for the industry.

Despite this, even extensive investment in opportunities for New Zealanders and the adoption of new technologies can only go so far. With unemployment approaching three per cent and border restrictions isolating us from the rest of the world, businesses across the country are desperate for workers. 

To address the gap between labour supply and demand, we also need skilled migrants entering through the immigration pathway.

CCNZ is partnering where appropriate with like-minded associations across the broader construction sector to make sure this need is addressed in the right way.

We will continue to advocate for a timelier opening of the borders, less restrictive visa requirements, and recognition of the work the industry is doing to engage with New Zealanders to attract them, retain them and grow them in the industry.

While we shouldn’t have to repeat ourselves, we continue to remind the Government of the critical role the construction sector plays in New Zealand’s post-Covid recovery, and in ensuring the health, wealth, and well-being of our communities. 

And industry needs to keep taking the lead on these matters with government support.

So many better outcomes can be achieved if government works alongside business rather than dictating terms. That is our approach to the workforce and immigration dilemma. 

We must work in a genuine partnership for the greater good, in an environment of mutual trust and respect.

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