There is no doubt that the construction industry is still in a deep recession, with dwelling consent figures for one of the quarters of 2012 being the lowest we have seen in the past 40 years. What remains in doubt is the timing of any recovery.
The Christchurch rebuild has been the great hope for two years, but remains elusively on the future horizon. An emerging boom period in Auckland construction is now on many lips, but “green shoots” are not enough to sustain the industry, while recovery in provincial New Zealand remains muted.
In this context, timing is the enemy. Even the most cynical accept that Christchurch and Auckland are going to drive demand for skills and labour to a level we will not be able to meet, but we still cannot be precise about when.
At the same time, given apprentices take an average of four years to complete their training, the extra skilled people we need for 2013 should have been in training during the past couple of years.
There is no easy solution to this dilemma, but doing all we can is still a worthwhile activity. It is a complex mix of industry boom and bust cycles, low productivity, continuing education and the funding mechanisms around industry training.
For the past two years the Building and Construction Sector Productivity Partnership has worked in this area, sponsored by the Building and Housing Group of the newly formed Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Within this venture, the BCITO has been leading a workstream which launched a Skills Strategy in March this year, and is about to launch an implementation plan. There are a number of critical messages in this strategy which aims to lift productivity by 20% by 2020.
First, the industry is woefully short of people who can effectively manage processes and supervise people, and this shortage is about to get worse as our aged workforce starts to exit.
We urgently need to get our younger people progressing beyond technical trade level and forging more sustainable careers in the industry. This is a subset of a big need to lift the training and performance of the existing workforce, because most of 2020’s future workers are already working in the industry today.
This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that our industry is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises. It is particularly difficult to get responses to change, and for resources to be freed up to continuously train and develop staff.
The Licensed Building Practitioner programme is helping with the expectation that practitioners must engage in continual professional development. However, to be more effective, the LBP CPD process needs to be reorganised to take a more strategic and structured approach to meeting training needs.
The industry associations and professional institutes are also well placed to contribute, and are an important access point to the existing workforce and to its employers.
However, they too must take a more structured approach in their development programmes in order to reduce duplication and enhance relevance.
This isn’t a glass houses exercise though. It is equally clear that the formal education system has missed the mark as well. Most research tells us that New Zealand is doing reasonably well with training new entrants to the industry.
However, in the depth of the recession, the system got the timing wrong by delivering large numbers of ambitious pre-trade graduates, fresh out of polytech, to an industry with no jobs.
ITOs and polytechnics have tried hard but been unable to figure out how to move trainees and apprentices in and out of workplaces and institutions to try and keep them training when redundancies struck.
The government funding system and policy has lacked the courage and vision to enable this when it mattered most.
In a large and unruly industry facing difficult times, what we have lacked has been comprehensive and courageous leadership. The Productivity Partnership has made a sizeable contribution towards meeting this need, but we are on the cusp of a big change on the demand side.
The question remains unanswered. “Where will the leadership come from?” If it doesn’t emerge now, we risk heading into an uncontrolled growth period, where another bust must follow. And so the cycle will start again.