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International managers bring new ideas and technologies, and a broader understanding of commercial, contractual and technical risk assessment on major complex projects

Upskilling the construction sector via senior-level recruitment – By Andrew Stevenson

The New Zealand construction sector is in the midst of a once-in-a-generation boom.

According to the 2016 National State of Infrastructure Report, sectors such as transport, telecommunications, water, housing and social infrastructure are all seeing record levels of investment to cope with New Zealand’s growing population. In the private sector, we’re seeing significant investment in new housing estates, coupled with a shift towards more high-density living – as evidenced by the large number of apartment towers currently either under construction or in the planning stages.

This has, in turn, seen new procurement arrangements (such as public-private partnerships) become increasingly commonplace, as alternative funding models are adopted to allow private sector expertise and financing to assist with the infrastructure pipeline.

So what does all this activity mean for the New Zealand construction landscape?

It should come as no surprise that we are in a resource-short market – an issue that extends through the full supply chain, from subcontractors though to management level. Compounding the issue is the number of large and exceedingly complex projects that are currently underway, or in the pipeline – the likes of which have not been undertaken in New Zealand before – Auckland’s City Rail Link (CRL) being the most obvious example. The first of its kind in New Zealand, this project requires expertise that we may not necessarily have at hand in the local market.

A shift in thinking

Historically, New Zealand companies have looked to recruit locally to meet their hiring needs – and understandably so, given the highly educated and skilled workforce we have at our disposal. However, in recent years we have seen a dramatic shift in the volume of work that has come to market. This has necessitated a commensurate shift in thinking to be more open towards potential employees from international markets.

Assessing potential employees based primarily on technical skills, project experience and cultural fit has become more commonplace, and the historical preference towards local experience and networks has had to take a back seat when making hiring decisions.

As we see it, this has had a net positive effect on the local industry – it’s not a case of New Zealand-based employees missing out on opportunities. Rather, it can be seen as an upskilling of the construction sector as a whole, by bringing in sought-after skills and experience that can only be good for the industry.

This shift in thinking has also impacted recruitment at a management level as NZ businesses seek to ensure they have the capability to successfully plan, design and deliver the pipeline of work. Skills and expertise in demand for current and future assignments include road and structures experience, rail (tunnelling, track, lines, control systems and signalling), and large-scale commercial building.

This influx of expertise has and will continue to have a positive flow-on effect for the New Zealand landscape, with international managers bringing new ideas and technologies and a broader understanding of commercial, contractual and technical risk assessment on major complex projects. This, in turn, is seen to have a positive impact on the local workforce, through exposure to new construction techniques and methodologies, without having to undertake the traditional OE to gain this experience.

A critical juncture

What are the risks of not upskilling our industry? As a country that prides itself on its progression and innovation, we’re currently at a critical juncture. We must continue expanding our resource capacity and deepening expertise levels to avoid the risk of falling behind the rest of the world in the advancement of construction techniques.

Auckland is a prime example: the city is expanding at a rate that our roads, railway and water networks weren’t designed for. There is no infrastructure redundancy, which means urgent action is required and (thankfully) is being taken. We are presented with the chance to demonstrate innovative problem-solving techniques – and, indeed, projects like the CRL are great examples of forward-thinking. Light rail, high-speed trains and second harbour crossings are all being discussed in the public domain right now.

These projects all present a wonderful opportunity to upskill and future-proof the construction and engineering sectors, by welcoming and engaging with international expertise. That’s happening with much greater frequency, via the recruitment of senior personnel as well as the engagement of global construction and engineering companies to deliver these major projects.

The challenges ahead

The major challenges facing the sector as it seeks to capitalise on this upskilling opportunity are competition from other global suitors and our geographical isolation. The skills we need are in demand all over the world, and there are plenty of project-led economies that are more conveniently located (and, arguably, offer better pay). It’s incumbent on the industry here to broadcast as loudly as possible the fantastic opportunities that do exist in NZ, both professional and lifestyle.

We are, however, very much on the radar of the internationally mobile population of migrants, with skills that cover the map. That intellectual property is permeating the industry, enhancing its capability and encouraging innovation and advancement.

There are decades of project work in the pipeline, and it’s the upskilling of the industry now which will ultimately ensure that work can be delivered successfully in the future.

Andrew Stevenson is the principal consultant, construction, at Cobalt Recruitment New Zealand, a leading specialist recruitment provider to the property, construction and engineering sectors cobaltrecruitment.co.nz

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