Our future is inextricably connected to our ability to work with our Asia-Pacific neighbours – with James Koudounis

James Koudounis is AECOM Client Account Manager to Waka Kotahi and is part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network. The Foundation provides experience and resources to help Kiwis build their knowledge, skills and confidence to thrive in Asia. They also support New Zealand companies develop connections and better understand Asia. James is an advocate for leveraging Asian expertise to address concerns that the New Zealand engineering industry is light on experience when tackling significant projects.

James Koudounis

James Koudounis

Where are the gaps in our expertise?

The skills gap is directly related to the challenges presented in delivering megaprojects. Many projects across Australia and New Zealand are now costed at over a billion dollars, and you wouldn't have dreamed of that ten years ago. The challenge is how to upskill our people and encourage the best talent worldwide to join us in delivering these billion-dollar-plus developments.

We currently have a fantastic pipeline of projects around the country, which is creating real development opportunities for our local talent. Upskilling our people to the level required to develop these projects would be the best solution. Still, realistically we are a pretty small economy, and I believe we can leverage much of that extra expertise from Asia.

In terms of the fundamental gaps in our expertise, you need to look no further than the proposed Auckland light rail project. We haven't delivered a project of that nature in New Zealand for a very long time. It was probably back when trams were a fixture in many of our larger cities that we had to develop that type of infrastructure.

It's great to talk about the Let's Get Wellington Moving project and the proposal for a second harbour crossing in Auckland, but we need to develop megaproject skills to complete those projects.

Why do we have an expertise gap?

This problem has been coming for a long while. Going back five or six years, I worked on a massive project for its day - the Waikato Expressway. The project delivered over 110kilometresof expressway for just over $2b, while construction of the section I was involved with was priced just under $150 million. It was seen as a big project then but relatively small in today's climate.

We have an expertise gap today because we haven't prepared our industry to ramp up the skills required to handle the megaprojects currently in the pipeline.

Over the past few years, individual organisations have overcome the skills shortage differently. Some have leveraged resources from Australia, while others have looked to other parts of the world. We need Government support to source expertise from overseas to respond to the challenges in front of us.

Does Asia have the people with the skills to respond to our challenges?

At Waka Kotahi's recent Select Committee Annual Review through the Government, Waka Kotahi discussed the need to leverage the experience gained during the construction of the Hong Kong to Macau tunnel and bridge project to develop Auckland's second harbour crossing.

It's great to hear the Waka Kotahi acknowledge that they don't expect our industry to have all the experience required to complete these megaprojects without overseas assistance. It's undoubtedly the case with the City Rail Link project. AECOM and other project partners brought in experts across Asia and globally to support the delivery, transfer of knowledge and upskill New Zealand staff.

We need to shift our mindset and be more open to leveraging that experience, whether it's remotely or locally.

Do New Zealand companies think of Asia when looking for expertise?

I think it has to be Asia-Pacific. A lot of the organisations that are part of ACE will have a global design centre in Asia. That's not purely a low-cost option but also hugely beneficial for accessing additional workforce capacity. The extra staffing helps New Zealand companies smooth out the highs and lows when working across infrastructure projects or when other projects go through peaks and troughs. Additionally, by developing connections and sharing expertise across the region we allow New Zealand businesses to share that expertise with the regions once we upskill our workforce.

What prompted you to accept a position with the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Group?

I worked in over ten different cities across Australia and New Zealand, working on infrastructure projects across the Asia Pacific. I have lived in four other places in New Zealand, and all this experience in diverse communities has shown me that we must think broader when delivering projects.

When the opportunity came up to join the Asia New Zealand Foundation, I realised that this would help me become more connected with Asia while helping broaden my skill set. New Zealand's future is inextricably connected to our ability to work with our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

What value have you gained from being part of that network?

It's helped improve my awareness of Asian business practices and increased my knowledge of developing stronger relationships with Asia. I have gained an insight into Asia through the transference of knowledge, and I see that transfer is fundamental to New Zealand's success in Asia and at home.

Joining the Foundation's Leadership Group has allowed me to understand better how working with Asian companies can unlock resources to improve our work practices.

What did India look like from an engineering perspective when you toured with the Leadership Network in 2018?

The Foundation had organised visits to many different organisations in the neighbouring cities of Mysuru (Mysore) and Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) in Karnataka State. We visited a news agency and Microsoft and then went to look at various businesses and places around the city. Travelling around the city allowed me to gain a perspective on their transport and rail systems. Historically, India has spent money and planned for things like larger populations. It was eye-opening to see how they can build around 27kilometresof roading each day, which, from an engineering perspective, is remarkably different from what we can achieve in New Zealand.

They deal with some of the same issues that we do, like moving people and freight while using transport to connect communities. India has far more people to move at any one time than we do.

There is construction going on everywhere, and looking at some of those projects, helped me realise that we tend to take our safety culture for granted. Some things happening on construction sites in India weren't as safe as we would expect on our sites.

From an engineering and consulting perspective, there are certainly some practices that we can transfer to our work as we deal with many similar issues. There are times that we look at our problems as unsolvable, but there is an opportunity to see the bigger picture.

How are they able to build so many kilometres of road each day?

They have a much larger population, so they commit a greater workforce to their projects. I think their leadership has been solid, and the construction sector is supporting their booming economy. In New Zealand, we need to grow our infrastructure, but there seems to be a more significant commitment to getting things moving in India.

How can the Asia New Zealand Foundation help facilitate engagement with Asian companies?

The business program supports New Zealand businesses and helps them thrive in Asia. The Foundation holds itself as New Zealand's leading authority on Asia and works in partnership with organisations across Asia and New Zealand.

They have a variety of programs that support business, technology, arts, culture and music. Those programmes help companies that want to grow, connect, engage and become more confident when dealing with Asian businesses.

The Leadership Network involves around 500 young leaders from across New Zealand. The Foundation supports us to engage with Asia and travel to those countries to understand a little more about their business practices and bring that knowledge back to New Zealand.

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