Skill shortages 
– we have been there before

By Alan Titchall, managing editor, Contrafed.

AS JASON WALKER, managing director, Hays New Zealand iterates in his Perspective the industry’s swelling staffing gap is a major concern.

With more than $125 billion of infrastructure works planned, he says, professionals are needed as vacancies soar across the country’s civil market. And this year our country faces its biggest ever infrastructure and housing programme, which will add significantly to staffing requirements.

However, it’s not as if this country hasn’t faced this challenge before and the first skill crisis came after our first Governor William Hobson, had the task of choosing a capital for the colony in 1840. He picked a site on the edge of the Waitemata Harbour and called it Auckland – payback to George Eden, Earl of Auckland who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had given Hobson his commission as captain of HMS Rattlesnake.

He urgently need skilled labour to build houses and he was up against stiff opposition. A year before, in 1839, the privately chartered New Zealand Company had made large land purchases around the Cook Strait. From the start of 1840, waves of British settlers came ashore at Pito-one (Petone) and built a settlement in the south-western end of Port Nicholson harbour they called Britannia. Later on that year the company directors changed its name to ‘Wellington’ in gratitude to one of their big supporters back home, the Duke of Wellington.

Hobson and the free colonists in the south had already clashed. Before Hobson declared sovereignty over this country on May 21, 1840 the Wellingtonians had formed a republican council. Hobson had it disbanded by force. Later he sent agents down to Wellington to poach skilled settlers to build his capital. After the New Zealand Company protested to Hobson’s superiors, he recruited housing builders from Australia. There hasn’t been much love shared between the two cities since, nor between private contactors and government agencies such as the NZTA when it comes to poaching skilled staff.

We had another huge skill shortage in the 1970s during the Government’s Think Big projects.

My dad, a manager with the Ministry of Works, was on the Tongariro Power Scheme back then. Living in Taupo and driving to work at the southern end of the lake, he used to pick up every hitchhiker he could and asked them if they had any skills he could put to use on the scheme. He found quite a few engineers that way. Even today, many industries, such as hospitality, are very reliant on young tourists coming here on one-year working holiday visas.

When you look at the current skill gaps we haven’t got a lot of options. It is not sustainable to offer more remuneration; recruiting from overseas is up against competition from other countries with better employment conditions; it’s a bit late to start promoting the industry to young school leavers; and investing in apprentices is a long-term solution.

That leaves us with the old Kiwi art of people poaching, and upskilling and making better use of the resources you have.

And maybe you can pick up that young backpacker – they might be just the person you need for the job?

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2018.

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