Last month, around 300 water engineer posts were advertised on recruitment website Seek. The high demand for these specialist engineers bodes poorly for the government’s Three Waters Reform, which will rely heavily on specialists, which the country currently does not have in the required numbers.
The shortfall mirrors the situation in other manufacturing sectors. Time and again, staff shortages have affected major infrastructure projects in New Zealand. This is an age old problem which needs to be addressed urgently.
Water engineers specialize in the design, construction, and management of wastewater, potable water, and storm water systems. They will typically have completed a four-year engineering degree, usually civil or environmental engineering, before specialisation. Qualification may take an additional five years.
Currently, these specialists are in great demand internationally. Companies regularly compete to hire engineers with five or more years of experience, offering excellent pay and conditions. New Zealand doesn’t have a large enough pool of water engineers, and the situation is about to get worse.
a global skills shortage
The government announced three water reform programs in July 2020, with enabling (and controversial) legislation passed in December this year. It represents a radical reengineering of water, wastewater and stormwater delivery – refurbishing, consolidating and building a new integrated system across New Zealand.
The cost of the work is difficult to quantify, but is estimated to be between NZ$120 billion and $185 billion over the next three decades.
This massive infrastructure investment will obviously require a large number of employees, including an unspecified number of engineers. An analysis by the Department of Internal Affairs estimated that the reforms would create 6,000 to 9,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
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Engineering New Zealand has underlined the need for specialized engineers that will arise from water sector reforms. And a recent report from workforce strategists We Are Water also highlighted urgent and significant recruiting challenges:
The transformation will require thousands of new workers to design and complete capital projects and operate the reformed industry.
To carry out the three water reforms, New Zealand will need to train more water engineers. It will take time, so obviously the next step is to look overseas. But New Zealand is competing for these experts during a global shortage of engineers.
Water engineers and civil engineers with land development experience are on Immigration New Zealand’s “Green List” for fast-track residency. It’s estimated that more than 1,500 engineers will be needed each year to match economic growth—let alone replace those who retire or change careers.
recruit and retain
The Association of Consulting Engineers New Zealand (ACENZ) released a report outlining the need for 2,100 new engineers in the next 12 months to 2021.
Skill deficit can be addressed through upskilling and retraining. But for water engineers, it will require at least one year of specialized education or in-house company training.
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Better pay and more attractive packages can also help. But in a highly competitive environment, retention depends on company resources, and retaining employees doesn’t actually increase the pool of available engineers.
Recruiting and immigration overseas takes time, even when there is no international shortage of engineers. Foreign trained engineers will also need to complete some retraining to become familiar with New Zealand conditions.
Unless the government acts quickly, it is difficult to see how Three Waters will be started and progress made in time.
deeper than three streams
The skills shortage in engineering is a perennial industry problem. New Zealand needs to balance the capacity and capability of the construction sector with all national construction demand.
The construction sector in general continues to face challenges in delivering the proposed national pipeline of construction work, a situation which is exacerbated by constant stresses and shocks, including operating in a post-COVID environment.
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Our government-funded research program CanConstructNZ has identified the need for a holistic sector focus, including planning the entire pipeline of work and balancing this with the sector’s capacity and ability to deliver projects.
To achieve this balance we need robust data collected from the field that clearly identifies potential and potential. We can then match this data with further action programmes. CanConstructNZ is working with the Construction Sector Accord, Infrastructure NZ and the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission to help achieve this.
We have already identified that many government projects are delayed or postponed due to skill shortage in the construction sector. Without adequate long-term planning and good data, skills shortages can be anticipated when huge projects like Three Waters disrupt the industry.