New report identifies industry personnel challenges

We've released our latest report that looks at the personnel challenges currently affecting the consulting and engineering sector. ACE Chief Executive Helen Davidson examines the report's findings on how the industry is coping with the shortage of people with specialist skills.

How optimistic are ACE members about the future of the sector?

There is a general air of optimism, but it is tempered by recognising that the sector has some critical challenges ahead of it.

One of those challenges is to ensure we have the right specialist skills to deliver major projects on time and to a high standard. We must also make certain that the work pipeline is well planned to avoid boom and bust cycles.

What are the significant challenges for the next 12 months?

Our research tells us that there is a shortage of specialist skills in the New Zealand market at the moment, particularly at the intermediate to senior level.

Many of our firms say they must be allowed to bring in specialist talent from overseas as this is a key way they can address the lack of skilled staff in the short term.

What areas have skills shortages?

My first message is that the skills shortage doesn't just lie with staff recruitment for large-scale infrastructure projects, or 'projects of national significance'. There are major talent shortages right across large market sectors, including water and transport, which the Government is focusing on during the COVID recovery period.

The second important thing to highlight is that consultant and engineering activity is heavily weighted at the front end before construction begins. If we are to deliver critical infrastructure projects for Aotearoa, we need consultant and engineering talent now! Any delays will have dire consequences for the future work pipeline.

What effect will the skill shortages have in the short term?

Unless we can attract people with the required specialist skills through the international market, there will be run on effects that negatively impact our ability to respond to New Zealand's infrastructure needs.

At a practical level, this means we will see the time and cost to complete projects significantly increase with adverse down-stream effects on our productivity and broader economic outcomes.

How can the shortage of specialist workers be addressed?

Drawing from the existing NZ market is one strategy to fill that gap, but it will only get us so far. We are working in a competitive market with increased competition from in-house roles, including central and local Government.

Although we recognise the need and desirability of upskilling and retraining professionals across the sector, that will not address our current needs as it takes time.  We need a comprehensive strategy that looks at upskilling and retraining our people complemented by attracting people with specialist skills from the overseas market.

This will require the Government to undertake decisive action, which will enable a targeted skills-based approach to immigration through the MIQ system.

How difficult is it to bring in people with specialist skills from overseas at the moment?

One of the key barriers to bringing in these skilled people are the constraints around gaining a MIQ spot. It can be a complex process to get staff through MIQ and this is causing uncertainty within businesses.

We all know that the Government's border control measures are a critical pillar of our COVID-19 elimination strategy, and we accept that means different steps are now required to get overseas people into our workforce. What some members are telling us is that their experience with border control has been too difficult.

Our border strategy needs to make it easier for people with specialist skills, critical to Aotearoa's other COVID-19 response strategies (infrastructure stimulus), to enter the country. It should be recognised that time and productivity lost through lengthy delays in the immigration process negatively affects our sector's ability to deliver critical projects.

As we say in the report, we must have the ability to deliver infrastructure projects in a timely, cost-effective and quality way for all New Zealanders.

How many employees is the industry expecting to hire over the year?

Our members tell us that they expect to hire around 2100 new staff members over the next 12 months. This includes new positions as well as replacing attrition.

The percentage of staff employed from overseas varies greatly depending upon the firm's size, the nature of the work undertaken, and the complexity of the forward pipeline. Over the last few years, more offshore staff have been recruited to cope with the changing nature of work and the lack of suitably skilled local people.

What are the current skills shortages?

The Survey has revealed that the industry faces serious challenges in recruiting intermediate to senior people with relevant industry experience. The people most in demand are those with ten years + experience and those holding or with the ability to gain chartered status or equivalent.

The top skills shortages are in the following areas:

  • Civil engineers at intermediate to senior level with expertise in the transport and water sectors,
  • Structural engineers at intermediate to senior level across a range of market sectors,
  • Geotechnical engineers at senior level.
  • Draftspeople, designers and technicians, at intermediate to senior level
  • Fire engineers at intermediate to senior level.

There is also demand in some niche or specialised areas, including electrical design engineers, dam engineers, façade engineers, rail engineers, surveyors and traffic planners.

What needs to happen?

The sector requires firm and decisive action from the Government, which will allow people with specialised skills to enter the country now, to ensure there is as little impact as possible on our ability to deliver projects.

Read Personnel Challenges - The Ongoing Impact of Covid-19