From Rugby Star to Roadworker, the Struggle to Find Anyone To Build NZ’s Critical Infrastructure

Infrastructure

When construction companies have been collapsing, the Government has warned it must support the oft-forgotten civil contractors building the nation’s key infrastructure – rather than lead a race to the bottom.

As a youngster leaving Mt Albert Grammar School, Ropate Rinakama found a job on a road gang to support himself as he built his rugby career. Now the 33-year-old tighthead prop packs down far more weight on Auckland’s big water infrastructure projects than he does on the rugby field for the Manawatū Turbos.

The father-of-two drives excavators ranging in size from 2.6 tonnes to the massive 25 tonners that are so big they sometimes require pilot vehicles with flashing “oversize load” warning signs when they are shifted to a project.

For him, a job in civil contracting was a way to support his rugby career – but he now looks in frustration at the difficulty of recruiting workers to build and maintain the country’s core infrastructure. Even the big glamor projects like City Rail Link and the new Picton ferry terminal face challenges finding personnel – and it’s still harder for small to medium-sized construction companies maintaining the nation’s roads and digging the drains.

Pipeline & Civil, where Rinakama works, has taken the step of changing the name “laborer” to “general operative”, with a career progression up through “skilled operative” after three years, and then “leading hand” to “supervisor”.

It’s about getting away from the stigma of the term laborer, and is one of many initiatives from a civil engineering industry struggling to recruit relatively low-skilled workers, when all the headlines and political announcements are about recruiting high-skilled professionals.

This is important – because the reality is that not every manual job can be easily automated, and not every school leaver will be equipped for further education and a skilled trade or profession.

Tighthead prop Ropate Rinakama on the charge for Manawatū Turbos; he splits his time between his job and family in Auckland, and his rugby career in Palmerston North. Photo: Supplied

Now, a new report says the industry and Government need to work together to bankroll smarter recruitment and worker development – rather than Government procurement leading a race to the bottom.

The Civil Workforce Forum report, provided to the Newsroom, says on-the-job training needs to be funded as part of a day-to-day business, in line with the latest Government Procurement Rules.

“Many clients are asking for the results without providing any funding to achieve them,” it warns.

“It seems reasonable to expect social procurement would be a commitment from clients to fund training and development for the workforce, but we’re finding it reverts to price.”
– Canterbury civil contracting boss

“Contractors are also having trouble adjusting from the lowest-price conforming model, and are concerned if they embed training outcomes into their contracts, they will lose contracts because their tender prices are higher than their competitors.”

As the chief executive of one Canterbury-based civil contracting firm says, the intent to support training up a diverse workforce is there – but the commitment is lacking. “It seems reasonable to expect social procurement would be a commitment from clients to fund training and development for the workforce, but we’re finding it reverts to price,” he says.

The recruitment reality for civil contracting firms is more sophisticated than the perceptions. It’s often said, “all people need a full driver’s license, a clean drug test and a good attitude” – but the report says the challenges in developing an employment-ready workforce go far beyond that.

A driving license and a good attitude

When John Bryant left school at 17 to take up an entry-level job as an engineering officer for the Ministry of Works, he had everything he needed – he’d got his driving license at 15, he had work experience delivering groceries and on the factory floor, they could pull his car or lawnmower apart and put them back together, and they knew how to get out of bed in the morning for a job.

“Every time I had to cut the lawns, I was forever pulling the carburettor apart, or the spark plugs, and that sort of thing to get it to blimmin ‘start.”

Now aged 62, he says the industry is bigger and more complex, and so too are the careers. He’s worked his entire professional life in civil contracting – and it’s that perspective he brought to the report he’s co-written with the industry association Civil Contractors NZ.

Their report argues for three things:

Fiona Jerry says people are dismissive of jobs in roadworks, but her career has given her a chance to grow. Photo: Supplied / EpicWork

First, workers need to be employment ready – not just the driving license (which is still problematic) but also an ability to learn policies and practices like health and safety and an understanding of what they’re getting into.

Secondly, says May, the industry needs to share solutions that improve productivity and reduce the cost of training. Somewhat perversely, some local councils and contractors are putting workers back on the shovel, because that way they can get Ministry of Social Development funding to train up six workers – whereas using a diesel excavator would train only one person.

And thirdly, a mature apprenticeships framework needs to be embedded to provide those who start in the industry with an aspirational career path.

A mature apprenticeships pathway

Pipeline & Civil Ltd has about eight to 10 workers in the apprenticeship program at any time. Traffic coordinator Fiona Jerry is one worker who’s coming through that career path. She has worked with the company for 16 years, and is now focused on mentoring and teaching newer workers, especially around traffic management.

Last year her work was recognized when she was highly commended at the Connexis Civil Construction Awards, and for the Hynds Women in Construction Award.

“I didn’t think I’d be in this sort of career,” she told May. “I ended up coming into civil from The Warehouse – a different change, coming from indoors to outdoors.”

Fifteen years ago Fiona Jerry was stacking shelves at The Warehouse but, keen to try something new, she took a job in traffic control with Pipeline & Civil. Now she oversees traffic management for worksite building critical infrastructure. Photo: Supplied

Pipeline & Civil is a medium-sized company, employing about 110 focused on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure around Auckland and the upper North Island. All 19 shareholders work for the company.

“A lot of people think, ohh, roadworks. They don’t realize the bigger picture,” Jerry added. “I think that if they see it, they may come towards construction. Since I’ve been in the career, I’m glad to be in civilian. They gave me the opportunity to do it, and you just grow from it.”

The industry still has a long way to go. For instance, with relatively few women, many companies are lagging on providing suitable toilets or hygiene facilities on remote project sites.

“There’s a saying that civil engineers have had a bigger impact on public health than the medical profession, simply because of sanitation and safe water supply.”
– Hugh Goddard, Pipeline & Civil

About 15 percent of Pipeline & Civil’s staff are women, and a few women like Jerry work out in the field. “They’re awesome, because they just add another dimension to the site team,” says Hugh Goddard, Pipeline’s managing director. “They probably keep a lot of boys in check. It is perceived as quite a male-dominated industry.”

Ironically, for an industry that’s building the country’s cycleways and railway lines, workers often have to drive to work because there’s not yet any other way to get to their sites – and that means having a driving license. Not to mention, to actually drive the trucks and heavy machinery.

Pipeline & Civil always advertises driving licenses as a requirement in jobs, but despite that, one in five applicants doesn’t have one. It’s a reminder of those basic hurdles to entry, and work readiness that are often forgotten as government and big business focus on the need for skilled workers.

“It’s quite astounding,” Goddard says. “We do find a lot of young people just don’t see it as a priority for whatever reason. So even if they have their learner’s or restricted license, we’ll support them as an employer to achieve their full license. And that enables them to move forward on to other roles where they can be more useful for the company. “

Playing rugby, Ropate Rinakama loves the enjoyment sport provides people. Driving an excavator, he is motivated by the knowledge that he’s helping Auckland grow. Photo: Supplied

Flexibility around families can also be a problem when projects must sometimes be completed at speed, and sometimes at weekends or overnight to avoid cities grinding to a halt during the work day.

Ropate Rinakama, his wife Ailsa and their pre-schoolers Xavier and Anareta, live in Glen Eden. But as well as commuting to Palmerston North for rugby, he’s been working on building 40-meter wastewater shafts in Red Hill, Albany and Massey.

“You know you’re helping the growth of Auckland,” he says.

But he does say it’s important workers, especially younger ones, to be able to manage their hours so they can still play rugby, or go skateboarding, or volunteer in the community. “Then they’re not just thrown into the deep end to work and work and work, because they’re still trying to find their feet.

“Looking back now, I see that’s something the industry has to be aware of – to look out for young people. They’ve got dreams and aspirations. So let’s help him focus on those things and, at the same time, help them with their career in the industry. “

Rinakama also helps coach the Mt Albert First XV – and he says he teaches the boys the same skills and mindsets that he applies on the job. “For me the proudest thing is when I coach, taking what I’ve learned on the machine, the ability to be calm, controlled, and know we’re creating something for future generations in the community will enjoy.”

Goddard says a well-staffed and trained civil infrastructure industry is a public interest for the wider community. “There’s a saying that civil engineers have had a bigger impact on public health than the medical profession, simply because of sanitation and safe water supply,” he says. “So having engineers and contractors throwing and bringing the right people into the industry, it’s essential for the public good. It’s not just about building roads.”

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