A civil contractor veteran who has done so much to recruit young people into an ageing workforce has himself reached the twilight of his working days. Mary Searle Bell talks to Ross McArthur about his great work in the industry training.
For many years in the latter half of his career, Ross McArthur worked to get young people into civil construction, as well as ensuring those with experience are credited for their skills with appropriate qualifications. But now he says it’s time for him to step back.
The industry has been talking about the issues of an ageing workforce for years, and some progress has been made to deal with it, nevertheless, the statistics still show that the civil construction workforce has a disproportionately high number of older workers.
“At the beginning of the process, Downer completed a workforce age distribution survey and found that the average age of its workforce was 53. We managed to get that to under 50 years old in just three or four years,” says Ross.
That was back in 2009, and Ross had been working for Downer for over 35 years by then. He had been given an opportunity to move from the operational side of the business to peruse an ambition he’d had for some time.
“I had been keen to create a cadet or apprenticeship scheme for years. Well, all of a sudden, circumstances supported it.
“I ended up working with a Greg McBain, the learning development manager at Downer, and we had a cadet programme up and running in two years.
“We had tremendous support from Downer, who had enrolled 120 cadets in those first couple of years.”
In 2011, Ross was sitting at an industry workshop with John Bryant, a senior engineer at Higgins, discussing the problem of an ageing workforce.
“We agreed something needed to be done.
“Coincidentally, it was about this time that Philip Aldridge, CEO of what was then Infratrain, had put out a paper on the importance of recognition of a supervisor level of experience and the issues with the ageing workforce.
“I knew from my experience coming through the Ministry of Works, that with its demise, we lost the structure it had created, and the status that was given to senior supervisory staff. We had so many supervisors without any recognition of their experience and skills.”
Ross well knows the benefits of having a mentor or supervisor to teach and inspire the younger generations. His early career was sparked by his science teacher, Phil Dorzaic, who also happened to be the first ranger for Fiordland National Park. Phil took the class on a field trip to George Sound, which got young Ross interested in tramping and climbing.
“It was very courageous of him to take us out into the middle of Fiordland, but it inspired me – despite being soaking wet for 10 days straight, I was well and truly hooked.
“My subsequent trip to Antarctica in the summer of 1970-71 as a Boys’ Brigade rep only reinforced my interest – I was training with the DSIR, US Coast Guard, and NZ Navy, which involving working as a field assistant to military officers, technicians, and scientists.
“The hydrologists were studying the glacial water balances of the Dry Valleys and would give lectures on their findings when they returned to Scott Base. I found it fascinating – I’d never even heard of hydrology before.”
It was enough to set him off on his career. He became a cadet, training with the Invercargill hydrological survey unit at the Ministry of Works, which later evolved into Works Infrastructure before becoming Downer.
After three years, he was made officer in charge of the Southland water and soil division, and spent time supervising the construction of the Manapouri telemetry stilling well network.
“Then, when the Manapouri hydro investigations came to an end, the operation was closed down and I moved to Alexandra. I moved from the wettest part of the country to the driest – a pleasant change.”
His work shifted to civil construction, and Ross says everything was fine up until 1987, when the government decided to corporatise the Ministry of Works.
“It got split up and I ended up in Works Infrastructure as branch manager for Coastal Otago for a couple of years before moving to Nelson as the regional manager for nine years.
“I was then asked to move to Auckland, where Auckland was being merged with Northland to form the Auckland North region.
“During this time we built a three silo Astec asphalt plant, which involved a trip to Chattanoga, USA.”
A couple of years later, wanting to return to the mainland, Ross asked to go back to his old job in Nelson. However, he was asked to take the role of South Island operations manager instead.
In 2007, he moved to the role of national staff development manager, responsible for the development and implementation of Downer-wide graduate, cadet, and modern apprenticeship programmes.
After 42 years with Downer, in 2013, Ross finally set up on his own as McArthur Consulting, focusing on NZDEP and RCC assessments as an independent assessor to Connexis, IPENZ and NZQA.
Philip Aldridge set up the Civil Trades Certification Establishment Board with Ross, John, and two others from Infratrain, along with Chris Olsen, then the CEO of Roading NZ, for the development of the certification and governance models and a draft policy and procedures paper.
“We wanted to not only bring fresh young faces into the industry, but to formally acknowledge the experience and skills of those who’d been working in the industry for years.
“We looked at how other trades’ training was structured and developed a structure to suit our industry. We also approached the Contractor’s Federation [now CCNZ] in July 2014 to see if it would take ownership of the qualification. Then I received John’s text advising me that the association would take over the Trade Cert Qualification and that day was truly memorable – my wife and I were in Essex and had also just received word that our twin granddaughters had arrived! Things really escalated after that.”
When it came time to launch the Trade Certificate, Ross suggested they get the then-transport minister Steven Joyce
to host it at parliament. He duly presented the first 14 graduates with their certificates at an event at Parliament on December 1, 2015.
“We initially thought 400-500 people would qualify. We’ve long passed that number, and they’re only starting to taper off now.
“I’m extremely thankful that we had the opportunity to develop the qualification. We were fortunate there were some very dedicated people in the industry who were willing to help make it a reality.
“It worked. And it’s still working now.”
However, Ross says it is now time, after eight years, for a fresh look at the qualification and the structure supporting it.
“It is great to see that Rebecca Fox, workforce development manager at CCNZ, has the qualification in her portfolio.
“The Workforce Development Council (Whihanga Ara Rau) has recently produced a comprehensive workforce development plan for the construction and infrastructure industries, which shows that while the workforce is becoming proportionally younger, there is a need to prepare for a period of losing a greater number of our more mature workers.
“To the younger generation’s credit, they have embraced technology – where we once had to learn from our supervisor, they can go online and gain knowledge at a rate we could never have imagined.
“It’s a world away from my start with theodolites, slide rules, and manual Odhner calculators.
“Half a century ago, you had to show competency in your work before you moved forward – and training younger team members was a core part of doing business.
“Has anything really changed?”