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At Annual Connection 2017 (L–R): Stephen Griffiths, Connexis customer service manager; Peter Benfell; Angela Bailey, Connexis customer service manager; and Henare Raukawa, team manager, Waipa Networks line mechanic team

New Zealand infrastructure sector set for major growth and investment – By Peter Benfell

It’s always good when you step into a new role to have your thoughts and beliefs confirmed. For a long time I have been passionate about the vital importance of the infrastructure sector in New Zealand in terms of building and maintaining a strong and vibrant society and economy.

I have also long been aware that vocational education and life-long learning are crucial to the success of our industries, even more now that we live in a fast-paced world with exponential, and sometimes disruptive, change.

The infrastructure industry in New Zealand is in a phase of major growth and investment. In the coming three years, it is predicted to require an additional 21,000 workers within civil construction, electricity supply, telecommunications and the three waters (water treatment, wastewater, stormwater).
 
As a key partner to the industry, through developing industry standards to skill and upskill workers to fill these jobs, Connexis has a leadership role in effectively dealing with and harnessing this change. The next three to five years are going to be a really exciting time for the New Zealand infrastructure sector, with lots of growth and plenty of challenges and opportunities.
 

Challenges ahead

Growth and change of the magnitude I have just described don’t come without challenges, and industry capacity – literally the ability of the New Zealand infrastructure sector to keep pace with the demands that are being placed on it – is one of the most significant challenges we face.
 
There are numerous factors that need to be aligned and addressed for us to meet the future workforce requirements for New Zealanders to have the quality infrastructure that allows us our standard of living. Our industries are generally compiled of an older demographic, in an era in which the university pathway is often promoted as the only option for a successful career. There is a huge skills and labour force gap across most trades and services within New Zealand. This means we are all competing for the same people. Immigration policy, student fees/loan policies, educational funding models, and international companies undertaking New Zealand infrastructure contracts are some of the factors that impact and influence the future state of our infrastructure sector.
 
Just as challenging too is the way that technology is developing, and at times disrupting the way that things are done or how services are delivered. A good example is the changes that are taking place in the energy sector with renewable energy sources, smart metering and waste recycling. Technological disruption presents many challenges – as well as wonderful opportunities.
 
These changes and others have obvious implications for the types and calibre of vocational education that are provided to our sector. Just as fast-paced change requires companies to be more innovative and agile, it also means that our workforce needs to be flexible and transferrable. This sees a greater emphasis on not only the ability to learn, but how we develop and deliver that learning.
 

Change at a grassroots level

An important related issue is raising the profile and prestige of trades qualifications so they are no longer seen as a ‘second-class’ option. The ASG Parents Report Card survey found that nearly three-quarters of parents still want their children to enter tertiary education when they leave school, even though other research shows convincingly that many bachelor-level degrees are no longer supporting strong career pathways nor leading to high earnings.
 
One of the big challenges the industry faces is to change this thinking. At grassroots level, it means providing appropriate career paths and support for school-leavers (and their parents and colleges) who want to make a life’s work in our sector, and then ensuring that further qualifications and upskilling are available on a life-long basis.
 

The other 52 per cent

While on the subject of figures, there’s another large percentage that needs to be addressed. Around 52% of the New Zealand population are women and in our sector they are still greatly under-represented. Connexis has worked hard in recent years to increase the uptake of vocational training by women and there are some great success stories out there.
 
I had the pleasure of meeting a few of our female future industry leaders at the Got a Trade Industry Training Awards. These women are truly inspiring: not only are they shining the way for females to follow, but actively promoting trades as a great career option to other females that would prefer to put on a hi-vis than sit at a desk.
 
Despite the encouraging achievements of determined individuals and the companies and teachers who support them, a lot more still needs to be done to attract women into careers in infrastructure. The benefits of increased diversity in the workplace, from more people-friendly working environments to the introduction of fresh new perspectives and talent, are evident to all. This is an important part of the strategy that our Connexis team and stakeholders will be taking forward into the next three years.
 

The importance of partnership

Looking ahead from an industry training perspective, I believe that the current growth and investment in the infrastructure sector will pay real dividends. I look forward, post 2020, to 
seeing a more diverse industry that embraces and harnesses technology, and is not only more valued by society, but has been a vital industry in increasing New Zealand’s overall productivity. For school-leavers in particular, it will offer more attractive career options along with well-defined paths for career development and life-long learning.
 
None of this can be achieved of course without partnership between all of our stakeholders – organisations, companies and employees alike. In my first weeks in the job I’ve attended events like Got a Trade and Annual Connection and I’ve been meeting some of our industry members, customers and stakeholders. I’ve been hugely impressed by the great, committed people in our industry who all want to see it move forward.
 
With all of us working towards that common goal, I have no doubt it will happen.
 
Peter Benfell joined Connexis, the infrastructure industry training organisation, as chief executive in September; he was previously director of innovation and research at Opus International Consultants

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