Women to the rescue

The critical shortage of skilled truck drivers has been well documented in the news media, but not so well known is an equally threatening shortage of construction machine operators. BY TOM CLARKE.

ACCORDING TO DAVE CONNELL, president of Civil Contractors NZ, the shortage couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the country involved in one of its biggest-ever phases of infrastructure and property development which has been estimated at well over $10 billion.

Connell says the chronic shortage of both truck and machine operators is the result of a lack of training over the past few years, because of a lack of confidence in the construction industry.

Under John Key’s National led Government, we are embarking on seven massive lead infrastructure roading projects – that is, roads that enable economic growth rather than simply respond to it, known as the Roads of National Significance.

Added to that is a huge number of construction projects in the Auckland region involving new government buildings, new commercial, retail and housing property developments, and projects like the 30-year $2.4 billion development at Auckland International Airport.

On top of that is the Christchurch rebuild, which is now estimated at $40 billion.

Connell says there is real demand for capable, experienced machine operators.

His company, Connell Contractors, has bases in Hamilton and Christchurch and is handling projects from the Port of Tauranga to the Christchurch rebuild, and is currently bringing in operators from the UK to fill the skills gap.

“There’s a hell of a shortage,” he says.

“A lot of good operators went to Australia to work on the enabling works to build the mines – the rail and roads and the development of the mines themselves – but now that has been done, around 20 percent of that workforce has been absorbed into permanent jobs to run the mines, but there’s no work for the rest.

“Australia is now having a recession in civil works and they’re behind us, while John Key has invested in infrastructure which is a real kick for our economy. But in Australia, guys are waiting for three months to get work, so they’re starting to trickle back. Some of them you wouldn’t want to employ in our type of work, because coming from the mining environment, they might be good with big machines and bulk stuff, but they’re no good digging around utilities.”

Until now, Connell Contractors has relied on recruiting operators and training them themselves to their required standards, but Connell is hopeful that the new infrastructure industry training organisation, Connexis, will result in the industry lifting its profile, and attracting more talented and capable youngsters.

“We’ve always picked the low hanging fruit and the under-performers, and we’ve never had anything to offer NCEA Level II kids that is practical,” he says.

“The dairy industry and the armed forces have excellent recruiting and they offer fine careers, but we’re better and we just need to sell ourselves.

“And we need to value drivers more. For years we’ve taken warm bodies off the street and thrown them on half-a-million-dollar machines, and that has got to stop. We need to wean out the cowboys and lift the profile – it’s a high compliance industry and we need smart, professional people.”

There are plenty of good people with the right skills he believes. It’s a matter of attracting them into the industry and then into training, and then retaining them. The industry is crucially important to the economy, so it’s important that it develops broader appeal.

Connell says the beauty of Connexis is that it will – for the first time – offer trade training that will enable young people to enter construction industry apprenticeships covering wheels, tracks and rollers, and civil plant operators and at the end of their apprenticeships, they will have some great skills and a great future in a great industry, and with no student loan.

The new training regime starts in the first quarter of this year, and Connell says it will lift the whole profile of the industry.

He is keen to encourage more young women to consider careers in the industry, believing they can be better operators of trucks and heavy construction machinery than men.

“I’m really a fan of them in our workforce,” he says.

“In Australia some of the women driving those big 200-tonne dump trucks are much more gentle, so there’s much less wear and tear on the gear. Women think differently, they relate better, they’re more consensus-based – and they tend to get their way, not by yelling and screaming, but by negotiating.”

There are currently very few women operators in the industry, and Connell believes if more could be encouraged to enter the industry, it could have a snowball effect.

If a young woman could leave school and be earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year operating a construction machine, that could be a huge incentive for other equally capable youngsters earning $25,000 as a shop assistant, to consider joining the industry.

“Trucking is a little different because it’s a nice clean environment – the question is how do you sell the role of a digger driver to women? Is it attractive to them?

“There’re plenty of women who can do it – I’ve seen women drive motor scrapers and they’re excellent. We just have to convince them that as a woman there is a future for you in this industry. There is a growth path and it’s a good safe environment.

“That’s just another bit of work we have to do as an industry,” he says.

“And I think the new apprenticeship is going to open a lot of doors and solve a lot of problems.”

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