The great relocation?

Construction jobs from home

Rob Sellars, managing consultant, Eighty4 Recruitment.

I’m writing this article in my home office, a portable sleep-out room that we were lucky enough to get with the property we bought when we moved out of Auckland last year. It’s a simple set-up, and doubles as a storage unit, but has plenty of space, and is removed from the main house which is only steps away.

I had discussed with my director about relocating prior to knowing that Covid even existed, so it was already on the cards, however the lockdowns made the transition to remote working a bit easier and solidified that it was the right decision.

Since then, I have worked predominately from home, with regular visits back to the office until border controls precluded this from happening. What seemed like a radical thing to do at the beginning of last year has suddenly become much more of a norm, and ‘flexible’ and remote working is now at the forefront of many hiring discussions, even in construction.

While a lot of jobs in construction require people to be ‘on site’ most or all the time, there are quite a few roles that don’t. As many civil contractors have found through the past year, there is a lot more than people thought that could be done without having to be in the office. Where is all this heading? The pandemic has really accelerated these changes and forced us to think differently, but I think a shift was always coming.

The 2021 year

As most readers will likely be aware, 2021 brought about unprecedented shortages of candidates. While civil construction was significantly affected, the issue was widespread amongst many industries, and was a global issue. Strong demand for staff due to hugely increased government spending under the banner of economic stimulus, coupled with an effectively closed border created havoc in the recruitment world as no one could find the people they wanted.

Even having worked through the 2000s-mining boom in Australia, I have never seen the level of demand from clients as I saw this year. Companies desperately trying to fill roles and struggling to get any applicants through to assess. Agencies such as ours became even more vital for businesses trying to access scarce talent.

Another factor at play was job security in these uncertain times, and the fact that many people were nervous about what the future held. This made them anxious to apply for jobs when there wasn’t a lot wrong with their existing one. Unless the job was one they couldn’t refuse, many people just didn’t budge.

Then there were the candidates that were tempted by a new role, went to the interview and received the job offer, but never ended up starting. 2021 was the year of counter-offers, where after being presented with an employee’s resignation, companies went into full retention mode, finding thousands of dollars extra salary, new job titles and perks that suddenly materialised for the employee, as firms realised it would be more costly to try and replace them.

Through basic supply/demand we saw salaries take a significant increase throughout the year, particularly at the junior engineering and senior management levels.

Recruiters wept all over LinkedIn as their candidates succumbed to the temptations of the company they had known and loved for the past few years, stayed put and the search for new staff continued.

Companies that were successful in hiring staff through 2021 had three key aspects that enabled them to attract staff on board: A strong employer value proposition (EVP) and the ability to market it well; and exceptional and regular communication between the hiring leads/managers and the candidate.

These simple factors are not always easy to do well, but through pure necessity in 2021, there has been a huge increase in the number of firms implementing better processes.

Many potential candidates were keeping an eye on the market this year, as they realised they had become very valuable to prospective employers.

However, they also knew they could be quite fussy about what they applied for, and their salary expectations also increased. Through basic supply/demand we saw salaries take a significant increase throughout the year, particularly at the junior engineering and senior management levels. Waged staff too, demanded more and contractors across the board have felt the pressures of rising staff costs.

With the market turning into a very candidate-led one, another aspect of work that was sought after by candidates was increased flexibility, such as the remote working arrangement, and a more ‘office-hours’ Monday to Friday roster, especially for salaried staff.

While many contractors may struggle to imagine how things get done in 40 hours per week, the younger generation is increasingly looking for more time to spend outside work and companies are responding to accommodate them.

Many candidates have been specifically seeking work that gives them ‘normal’ hours. Some firms that traditionally expected a six-day working week have now shifted to five days and are allowing work from home arrangements. Surprisingly, or not, productivity does not seem to have been affected and anecdotally, many employees are much happier.

In store for 2022

The ‘Great Resignation’ is a label for the big shift globally of people leaving their jobs as a response to the pandemic, moving out of cities and shifting into more flexible forms of employment. As mentioned, I have been part of this trend somewhat, but is it going to continue and how will it affect the civil construction industry?

Personally, I have a large number of clients who have significantly altered their terms of employment to cater for role flexibility and remote working where possible and I can only see this trend increasing. Jobs may well change significantly this year in terms of scope, to allow for more or less office or site contact.

Many candidates contacted me over the past year seeking roles that allowed them a 40-45-hour work week, citing a desire for more family time, time for renovating houses and generally less stress. I see a move back to more ‘regular’ hours to become more of a norm throughout 2022 as candidates demand it, and businesses will need to consider how they remunerate people effectively in their businesses, so that those wanting to work extra hours are rewarded in an appropriate manner and that those who prefer to do standard hours are not penalised.

Many regions outside Auckland are currently experiencing an upswing in infrastructure activity, and many jobs are available for people looking to leave the city. We are seeing a steady flow of people relocating, with the Hawkes Bay, Bay of Plenty and Northland popular destinations. I expect this trend to continue as the Auckland border opens up.

Speaking of borders, the big news of 2022 for recruitment is the impending opening of the international gateway. Already, companies are desperately vying online to be the first point of call for the perceived influx of returning Kiwis, now that MiQ will no longer be required.

However, as welcome as these returnees will be for the industry, I somehow do not believe that this will be the boon that some are hoping for. Yes, people that were holding out to come back will come, but my guess is the low numbers will be disappointing to many.

Frustratingly, I also foresee a lot of movement of Kiwis heading overseas in 2022, which may mitigate any inward migration. From young engineers seeking higher wages in Australia, to expatriate UK citizens/NZ residents heading home for a two-year working holiday, to the un-vaccinated people heading to a jurisdiction that will allow them to work freely – I have recently spoken to all these people and expect that more like them will continue to head offshore this year as travel resumes.

Salaries and wages will continue to increase, and smart tender teams will be building these rises into their future costs, as inflationary pressures continue to bite.

While ‘Zoom fatigue’ has become a reality, many people have now found a good balance of time spend meeting online and the use of online video technology for meetings and job interviews will remain in the foreseeable future.

Change is happening, and at a more rapid pace than many will have seen before. Companies who have the flexibility to shift with this change, dispense with the one-size-fits all approach and personalise their job functions to the individual may well be the winners in 2022.

To conclude, I will watch with interest as it all unfolds, from my remote-working, WFH sleep out/office, as I manage interviews on MS Teams and look forward to getting back into Auckland for some long-awaited facetime IRL.

The future is here, embrace it!

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