Recruiting staff in a tight labour market

Downer has held the Three Waters Maintenance Contract for Tauranga City Council for over eight years after starting the contract in 2013 for the maintenance and fault response for the region’s three waters services.

Greg Steele, Downer BOP water contract manager, outlined the five key steps Downer implemented to successfully recruit staff in a tight labour market in the Tauranga 3 Waters Maintenance Contract, and build a dedicated and growing team without competing in the market for the same resources, or paying higher wages.

Greg says these steps are transferable to any growing civil construction team, and demonstrate the importance of a strong culture and a people-focused approach.

Programme background 

When Greg joined the Downer Tauranga 3 Waters team in 2018 staff retention rates were low, and the company division struggled to deliver the quantity of maintenance work as staff were fatigued and nearing breaking point, he says. 

“The total contract had 38 staff and the water services team had eight. The client (Tauranga City Council) invited me to a crisis meeting regarding the water team in my first week. I was informed that our wages were too low and we were about to lose more staff in the coming weeks. Downer had posted numerous job ads in the previous 12 months and the preceding five years. 

“There had been little to no interest and a lack of suitably qualified applicants. The retention rate dropping to 70 percent further compounded this, which means that 30 percent of the staff left the contract per year.”

This was made worse by a construction boom in the Bay of Plenty putting pressure on the local labour market. 

“This pressure made competing for staff to recruit into our maintenance contract difficult. With construction projects delivered over a shorter time when compared to a maintenance contract, they can raise their wage rates to better meet labour market increases. Maintenance services are traditionally delivered over a longer-term, have tighter margins, lower labour rates and less favourable working conditions. 

“The current labour market is becoming even tighter with the post-Covid Government’s ‘shovel ready projects’, further extenuating the situation where more work is available than labour to deliver it.

The five steps

By implementing the following five key steps, Greg says the three waters team was increased from eight to 21 staff, while revenue improved by 30 percent from the previous contract high. 

“The increase in work volume and team size required additional supervision, training, plant, equipment, and vehicles. We decreased overtime and on-call requirements, maintained the previous margin and improved the service level KPI performance.”

1. Setting a vision

At my first monthly toolbox meeting as the water contract manager, I was asked to introduce myself to the Downer Tauranga Depot. 

I took the opportunity to outline my vision for the Tauranga Water Contract team and the wider Downer Tauranga staff. The principle behind our vision was not to try to complete 100 percent of the contract and be happy with 90 percent. We want to aim for 120 percent and smash past 100 percent. This inspired a positive direction for team buy-in towards our vision and provided us a criterion to apply when addressing problems or assessing opportunities against.

2. Recruit good people 

Rather than hire those already qualified from within the water industry, Downer targeted those who were hardworking, honest, and looking for a career, says Greg.

“This allowed us to fill the team with people keen to learn. They were paired up with the senior servicemen and were trained on the job to work at a high level of quality, safety and efficiency. This approach allowed us to fill the team with people who wanted to work hard to build a career. 

“We also tried to recruit from different labour markets rather than the traditional advertisement on recruitment sites. We engaged with our staff and interviewed their children, friends, and friends of friends. Because of our common vision for the path forwarded, we trusted that our team understood the personalities and work ethic that we were looking for.”

Downer also had a recruitment drive in 2018 in the Philippines, which secured three workers with construction plumbing experience for the new team, which was also beneficial in maintaining skilled to unskilled ratios in the field. 

“We contacted the three largest labour-hire companies that worked in our area – AWF, Onestaff and Adecco – sharing our vision with them and asking them to put forward candidates that best fit our new approach. This was successful as it reached a wide range of the career market and complemented the other vacant roles advertised on our behalf.”

Downer also made good use of its own and other training and recruitment programmes:

Downer Basic Civils helps Work and Income clients find employment opportunities in their local communities. As a five-day course participants can gain training, skills and qualifications in areas such as Level 1 Basic Traffic Control, Construct Safe certificate, light vehicle training, enrolment in the National Certificate in Water or Infrastructure works, plus communication and personal skills. 

Downer’s Apprenticeship Programme for water services revolves around the NZ Certificate in Pipeline Construction and Maintenance Level 4 and there was a good uptake of this opportunity within our local Three Waters team, says Greg.

This established programme is 70 percent workplace learning, 20 percent coaching and mentoring, and 10 percent structured learning programmes and courses, all supported by industry training organisations.

In Work Success is based on understanding the numerous challenges that can cause barriers to ongoing employment. These include literacy and numeracy, financial issues, health (including mental health), family/friends, drugs, and alcohol. Through this initiative, a programme coordinator connects employees with outside support and help and provides ongoing monitoring for the employee.

Whakatipu Tetekura is a programme to recruit and develop school leavers of Maori descent, providing future employment opportunities with technical training to gain a recognised qualification. With a specific focus on school to workplace transition, the programme provides participants with personal development through ongoing In-Work Success support for the first 12 months. 

Te Ara Whanake – Maori Leadership Programme is a well-established company programme that supports to upskill and empower New Zealanders of Maori descent into leadership roles at any level of Downer’s business. 

Downer says it has an 86 percent retention rate of the completed Maori Leadership programme employees, which is higher than the overall company retention rate. The company has won three awards for this programme: The 2016 Diversity New Zealand Emerging Diversity and Inclusion Initiative Award; 2018, HRINZ Corporate Social Responsibility Award; and, in 2019, Downer won the Deloitte Top 200 Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Award.

3. Support the team 

“Due to recruiting a higher number of unskilled staff, we had to ensure that necessary support resources were available. Our new team members were paired up with senior servicemen and mentored and trained on the job to work at a high level of quality, safety and efficiency.

“To assist our Tauranga team with the maintenance backlog and support training of the new staff, we had four qualified water servicemen from our Auckland water team assist for six weeks. This demonstrated an extensive help and support network to the team, providing a light at the end of the tunnel. We could also permanently recruit two of these members into our team.”

Greg says they found that the time pressure of maintenance work to complete the jobs quickly and move on to the next was not an effective training environment for new starters. 

“To help with this, we split the planned and reactive water team to allow new staff a better learning environment. The planned works team completed backflow testing and maintenance, hydrant painting, CBD and citywide flushing programmes, and a valve surveying programme. This gave us the ability to take on planned works without impacting the reactive delivery.

“This type of work also allowed for a better learning environment for the new starters to learn how to work in Downer’s health and safety system and the time for them to try out the tasks themselves. The trainee needs the opportunity to do the work themselves and not have the pressure of the water or power supply being off to customers.”

Greg adds that Downer also invested heavily in the required tools and equipment. 

“This helped the trainees by teaching them how to use the right tool for the task, ensured each tradesmen vehicle was set up consistently, and created efficiencies for all staff to complete the work safely and quickly.”

4. Create career pathways 

“When hiring career-minded people, you also need to provide them with formal training and career progression opportunities.”

The Downer National Water Collective Agreement set out a clear apprenticeship pathway from G1 through to G4. The pay aligned to this grading structure, with the living wage as a grade 1 and clear pay minimums per subsequent grade. 

Each grade outlined key competencies that allowed the employee to know what they were in for, how long it could take and what they needed to do to progress, says Greg.

“This coincided with formal training opportunities. The water industry was hampered by the delays and changes to the Pipeline Construction Training from Cert 3 to Civil Trade Cert 4. This was a challenge as we promised staff to get them on this programme and subsequently start their careers. 

“However, we did not let that stop the training progression of our team. We focused on the core competency training and the Downer internal health and safety training to keep the team moving forward. For example, concrete saw, confined space, working at heights, STMS, Class 2 licences, and backflow Downer critical risk and Permit to Work training.”

5. Family Culture 

Greg says Downer continually promoted a team culture to ensure members looked out for themselves and their teammates. 

“To do this, we complemented our technical support by also helping our people outside of their work environment. For example, we assisted our Philippines recruits in finding rental homes, and we arranged social events outside of work to help the team gel.”

Within the work environment successes were also recognised and rewarded. 

“On my first day as contract manager, I asked a few field staff what they thought would help the team. They said we used to do pizza in the park now and then. We brought this back and used it to discuss recent achievements and hand out awards and certificates. 

“We also shared contract successes with the team during toolbox meetings. This was achieved by presenting our contract KPI results for the month, our health and safety performance, and the customer feedback statistics. When we received a customer compliment, we made them into certificates and handed them out at the toolbox meetings or park lunches.”

Greg adds that a strong team culture also created an “enthusiastic response” when additional help from the team was needed at the weekend or late at night.


By implementing these five key steps, Downer’s contract water team increased from eight to 21 staff and the Tauranga-based water division from 32 to 56 between July 2018 to July 2021. 

“Subsequently, we have taken on our past learnings and experience into the new Tauranga City, and Western Bay combined contract to grow our team to 91 staff in our Tauranga water division.” 

Also, staff retention lifted from 70 percent in 2018 to 90 percent in 2021, the year the Tauranga City Council maintenance contract was re-awarded and expanded to include three waters services for the Western Bay District Council. The new contract term is for another 10 years, until 2031 and is 50 percent larger than the previous 2013-2020 contract. 

“The innovation of these five steps is that we embraced our difference in the labour market as a maintenance contract; rather than trying to compete with the rising labour rates for a small pool of resources, we provided an opportunity for new people to join our industry.”

“The industry in Tauranga now has greater workforce resilience and a positive future to sustain the growth of Tauranga City and the Western Bay of Plenty Districts.”


At Greg’s first monthly toolbox meeting as the water contract manager he was asked to introduce himself to the Downer Tauranga Depot. 

“I took the opportunity to outline my vision for the Tauranga Water Contract team and the wider Downer Tauranga staff.”

That vision included three main goals for the three waters contract: 

Goal one, double revenue in three years by increasing resources and maximise the client’s available works by aiming to deliver more than the contract requirements, and develop new teams to deliver services for the new revenue streams. 

Goal two, produce employees proud to work for Downer. “I felt that our team were working hard for the council and the community but did not feel valued by their employer. To change this, we planned to increase the training and development of existing staff, provide a clear career pathway and reward and recognise high performance and good work.”

Goal three, become industry leaders. “Our contract was in a state where we were under-delivering in all areas. Rather than settling for the status quo, we wanted to challenge how we were operating. This required us to trial new processes and improvements, learn from our mistakes and empower our workforce to work smarter.”

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