Skill shortage – lessons from the past

By Alan Titchall, managing editor, Contrafed Publishing.

In the October 2004 issue of Contractor magazine, the then chief of Roading New Zealand (which later merged with the Contractors’ Federation to become Civil Contractors NZ), Chris Olsen, wrote a column on an initiative which had addressed a looming manpower shortage.

At the time the industry faced a $4 billion increase in roading projects over the decade ahead, with the crunch time at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006.

The solution was a think tank of government and industry representatives who met in Auckland in late September 2004.

Major roading contractors met with the then Economic Development Minister (Jim Anderton), Social Development and Education Minister (Steve Maharey), Labour and Immigration Minister (Paul Swain), Associate Transport Minister (Judith Tizard) and local government representatives to nut out a process of averting future skill shortages.

The meeting had been arranged by the Department of Labour and Roading New Zealand, and included InfraTrain (now Connexis) and the Contractors’ Federation.

It focused on issues raised at a previous industry summit held in August 2004, involving industry (represented by Contractors’ Federation, InfraTrain, and Roading NZ) Government and local authority representatives. Participants spent most of this summit in workshops identifying blockages for gearing up for the new work and solutions for getting past these blockages. Initiatives were divided into those that should be progressed by industry, Government or local authorities.

The September meeting with Ministers covered the wide range of issues raised at the summit. These were considered as part of an overall package of measures and included:

  • Certainty about future work programmes;
  • Speeding up, simplifying and making the tendering system more flexible;
  • Raising the profile of the industry by making known what it can offer;
  • Setting up new, offsite training facilities where people can be taught how to build roads;
  • Tapping into the widest possible range of potential new staff;
  • Investing wisely in training and skills;
  • Retaining staff in the industry through good employment practice;
  • Innovation, efficiency and productivity in the industry;
  • Compliance and regulation issues;
  • The role of immigration; and
  • Increasing Government subsidies for training.


Certainty about future work programmes is an issue CCNZ chief Peter Silcock pushes today, and back in 2004 it was considered just as crucial to provide contractors with the confidence to invest in staff and around $2.5 billion worth of plant and equipment, needed for future projects.

Chris Olsen tells me contractors also believed that the setting up of offsite training facilities was extremely important as the number of new recruits meant they could not all be trained on site.

“A lot of people think we are an industry filled with unskilled labourers. This is simply not true,” he said back then in his column.

“Our workforce is highly trained and skilled. We have practically no labourers. Instead we have plant operators and trades people, skilled in working with asphalt, bitumen and other building materials.”

The Government in 2004 made a one-off increase in industry funding, with some contractors having 25 percent of their employees in training, Chris recalls.

Not a bad example for the industry and Government to copy some 14 years later?

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