Skills shortage needs urgent action on multiple fronts


Otago’s Troy Calteaux took out the 2023 Civil Contractors NZ CablePrice National Excavator Operator Competition. The Milton local and Andrew Haulage 2011 employee is the first ever three-time national champion. His success this year follows national titles in 2018 and 2021, making him the most successful operator in the competition’s history.


By Alan Pollard, CCNZ chief executive
As I write this, the sun is setting on the 2023 edition of our CCNZ CablePrice National Excavator Operator Competition in Feilding. Thirteen contestants have been put through their paces in theory, health and safety, practical tasks, and some fun activities, and Troy Calteaux from Andrew Haulage 2011 in Otago has been named our overall winner.

It’s been a fantastic two days, but the competition is not just about crowning a champion. It is also about promoting the industry as offering an exciting and rewarding career pathway, and engaging with the community to support their understanding of what the industry does, which in turn supports our social licence to operate.

Before the recent weather events, the civil construction industry was already facing a significant shortage of workers to undertake programmed capital and maintenance works. Now, as a result of the storms first in Northland, Auckland and Coromandel, and then with Cyclone Gabrielle impacting Gisborne, the East Coast, and Hawke’s Bay, that shortage has significantly increased. 

If you look at the extent of the damage across the north and east of the North Island, it is not surprising that a large number of the workers needed will be heavy machine operators.

I want to acknowledge the outstanding work our machine operators have been doing across the affected regions, first to rescue impacted residents and then front and centre at the heart of the recovery. CCNZ members have been engaged with a number of the communities that were worst impacted, and we can’t understate the gratitude they feel for the quick response. During times of disaster, ordinary people do extraordinary things, and our contractor community is no exception. We can feel incredibly proud to be a part of this great industry.    

I recently spoke at an immigration law conference with my colleague Helen Davidson, Chief Executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers (ACE).

I referred to our future labour needs being addressed through three sources – uptake of new and emerging technology, developing a domestic labour force, and immigration.

Technology adoption is a more long term strategy, with technology focussed on such things as machine and operator performance and productivity, and environmental sustainability. There are some amazing technologies emerging on all these fronts but their widespread adoption does take time so there must be a concerted focus on developing our local workforce capability and opening our immigration doors at least a little wider.

To develop a domestic workforce, we first need to retain our good people by offering a rewarding career pathway. This is crucial, particularly in a labour market where competition is intense. 

We are currently working to scale up the Infrastructure Skills Centre to provide a national pre-employment programme, which sits neatly alongside other similar programmes offered across the industry. It is a sad indictment on our education system that many students leave school with little or no understanding of what is expected of them when they enter the workforce. 

The Infrastructure Skills Centre will also provide an opportunity for those who may have been displaced or need to redeploy to receive preparatory training before they enter the industry. Key life skills such as effective communication, mental health awareness and nutrition will also be taught, alongside key vocational and technical skills new entrants to our industry need to thrive. In principle, it could also offer a good transition for immigrants who have newly entered the country. 

With the scale of the worker shortage, there will inevitably be a gap between labour demand and supply which will need to be filled by people from overseas. As an industry there’s a real appetite for and commitment to training up Kiwis to work in our industry but the sheer number of roles required in the years ahead mean immigration will have to play a part in the solution.

Just before Christmas, civil construction supervisors, drainlayers, and skilled civil machine operators were added to the green list for pathway to residency. Notwithstanding that this was welcome, the definitions of the roles and the conditions that are attached to them are cumbersome.

There are also some glaring oversights. For example, the low skilled migrant list for the construction and infrastructure sector, where there is a requirement to pay at least 90 percent of the median wage, currently includes no civil roles.

On a more positive note, the government recently announced a new disaster recovery visa, with few conditions, no fees and fast processing of one week. However, it is only for six months, which is far too short for the workers brought in under this visa to be fully productive and make a meaningful contribution to the relief and recovery effort.

What the disaster recovery visa did highlight, however, is that there has always been a capacity and capability to quickly adopt more flexible and less restrictive visas – there just hasn’t been a willingness to do so. 

We are continuing to work with government to move the dial on immigration. At the same time, we are getting together with industry to promote our country as an ideal place to work. 

The CCNZ, Association of Consulting Engineers, Master Builders, and Institute of Architects, in partnership with the New Zealand Story and Construction Sector Accord, are progressing a joint project known as “Destination NZ”.

This campaign is designed to promote New Zealand as an attractive destination fully open for business post-Covid, and our construction sector as a world leading sector offering attractive and rewarding career opportunities.

Campaigns like this are becoming increasingly important as the infrastructure skills shortage isn’t unique to this country.  We are fortunate that the country we live in is a desirable place for people to live and work, but getting that message out widely, and to the right people, is an ongoing challenge – especially coming off the back of years of closed borders due to the pandemic.

Once people have been convinced of the merits of this nation and have made the decision to move here, those immigration pathways need to be clear. If the immigration process is all too hard, they will undoubtedly go elsewhere.

Prompt and decisive action is needed now more than ever as we face a huge infrastructure deficit, massive maintenance requirements across our country’s infrastructure asset base, and now an as yet unquantified programme of recovery and rebuild due to recent weather events. Exploring new technologies, developing our domestic workforce, and removing the barriers that exist in our immigration pathway are all part of the solution and have never been more important and urgent. 

The grandstands at the CCNZ CablePrice National Excavator Operator Competition were often full during the competition, despite some sometimes-inclement weather. Let’s hope that there were many budding heavy machinery operators in the crowd, inspired to take that next step to a career in our industry.

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