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Minister of Building and Construction Jenny Salesa with (left) NZIOB national president Graeme Birkhead and (right) NZIOB chief executive Malcolm Fleming at the 2018 New Zealand Building Industry Awards

Skills shortage a target for construction minister – By Dave MacIntyre

The Minister for Building and Construction, Jenny Salesa, has her priorities set for the next two years of the coalition government that brings together Labour and NZ First, with the support of the Greens. Creating a sustainable workforce and plugging the skills shortage gaps are high on the agenda.

Interviewed by NZ Construction News one year after taking over a portfolio of responsibilities that include building and housing policy, and dispute resolution services for landlords and tenants and owners of leaky homes, she says that a primary goal is to address the skills shortage in the construction industry.

While the 2018 National Construction Pipeline Report (NCPR) shows signs of sustained growth for the next six years, traditional construction boom-bust cycles have undermined the chances to sustain a robust workforce.

So what can the government do to maintain a stable workforce? Ms Salesa says that for the first time the NCPR does not forecast a peak (and a subsequent trough). “Total new construction value will have a longer peak to 2023. This is unique compared with previous years, which have all forecast a peak at some point during the forecast period – it is a shift away from New Zealand’s usual boom-bust cycle,” she notes.

“Boom-bust cycles have never given the sector the certainty and confidence needed to grow skills and the workforce – and keep them. Gains made in peak periods dissipate and then we frustratingly repeat the cycle. The energy it takes to gear up for booms could be used to more thoroughly investigate innovation and efficiencies across the sector.

“This steady upward curve will help shape a more efficient and innovative sector and provide a more stable foundation as we begin the decade-long KiwiBuild project to deliver an additional 100,000 modest starter homes into the market.”

A collaborative approach

Ms Salesa is encouraging a collaborative approach with the industry to address the issue, and in early October released the Construction Skills Action Plan. The plan focuses on six initial priority areas, namely:

  • • Leveraging government procurement
  • • Establishing additional jobs and skills hubs
  • • Growing construction careers and credentials
  • • Expanding skills for industry
  • • ‘Mana in Mahi’ – Strength in Work
  • • Further changes to immigration settings.

The changes to immigration settings will help the sector address its immediate skills shortages while long-term development of New Zealand’s domestic workforce occurs. “The construction sector is rapidly evolving – even five years ago few people would have appreciated the impacts of innovation and technology, and so creating a plan that moves with and reflects these changes is vital,” says Ms Salesa.

Further announcements in each of these areas are expected soon. In the longer term, additional priority areas may be added.

Complex regulations

Another area of focus for the minister is the complex building regulatory system. “We are focused on ensuring regulatory and commercial processes are risk-based, balanced and efficient. This includes risk and liability and more efficient consenting work,” Ms Salesa explains.

Building products, used appropriately, contribute to safe and durable buildings, and a significant reform programme is underway. Options will be provided to the minister later this year, and public consultation is expected to take place in early 2019.

“We need clear and reasonable building performance requirements that look to the future. This includes Building Code system updates, and work in the Smarter Compliance Pathways space.” Smarter Compliance Pathways workshops were being held at the time of publication.

“We are implementing biannual updates to the Building Code system. This regular update cycle will provide clarity and certainty to the sector about when changes are coming. These will occur in June /November each year.”

Early initiatives

One of the minister’s first initiatives on taking office was to launch the Building CodeHub search engine and sponsor five commonly-used building standards and a handbook. She says it is important that users of the Building Code have access to documents required for compliance, and that as many barriers to compliance as possible are removed.

“I am satisfied the building system is performing well, given the high levels of building and construction activity occurring across the country. MBIE is currently testing options with the sector to improve the consenting system to ensure it remains fit-for-purpose, particularly with KiwiBuild in mind,” Ms Salesa says. “The focus of these improvements is centred around the use of technology to support good building outcomes and drive further efficiencies into the consenting process.”

Another of the minister’s actions has been to increase the cap for the Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings Securing Fund and to allow additional time for doing work. The minister says this balances the practical constraints owners face in meeting the original timeframe, against the public safety risk posed by unsecured unreinforced masonry.

However, she adds: “If building owners have done nothing, MBIE expects councils to exercise their powers to manage public safety risks. Councils have powers under the Building Act 2004 to take prosecutions if owners have not complied with the securing requirement; this is a decision for the local territorial authority, not central government. MBIE is not considering any further time extensions, as this securing work is necessary for public safety.”

Overall, Ms Salesa is pleased with the progress of the URM securing initiative. “I understand the timeframes of the securing requirement have been challenging for building owners, but I am particularly pleased by Hutt City Council’s recent announcement that all 25 of their buildings have been secured and Wellington City Council is making good progress as well.”

Another major initiative has been collaborating with the Auckland Mayor’s Housing Taskforce, in addressing housing needs in the city. The Building System Performance team at MBIE and members of the taskforce have met twice in recent months to discuss the projects and initiatives underway as part of MBIE’s work programme. Further meetings are likely.

Passionate about homelessness

As the local MP for Manukau East, Ms Salesa has highlighted the plight of Auckland’s ‘hidden homeless’. As minister, she sees progress being made in addressing that disadvantaged sector of society.

“I’m very passionate about addressing the issue of homelessness. As a government, it is one of our priorities to ensure that everyone has access to a warm dry home – this includes our efforts to end homelessness by boosting Housing First and other initiatives,” she says.

“Recently, I was part of the Auckland Homeless Count (AHC) alongside Mayor Phil Goff, Housing First and over a thousand volunteers. The scale of this issue is larger than most people realise.

“As a government, we are committed to building 100,000 more affordable houses through KiwiBuild. We will also build 6400 more public houses over the next four years, and earlier in May, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced $100 million for emergency housing, transitional housing and Housing First initiatives.”

Women in construction

As this article follows hot on the heels of the Hays NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) Excellence Awards, the minister was asked if she would encourage more women to make a career in construction.

“The industry has begun to embrace diversity, but we need to improve and do more to attract women, as well as more ethnically-diverse people in building and construction. Businesses need to better recognise the value of diversity in the workplace. In order to meet skills shortages in the construction sector, employers will need to recruit from different population groups than they have done traditionally,” she says.

“For example, in the last four years, only 2% of all construction-related apprentices were women, compared with 8–9% of all apprenticeships. Through the design and implementation of the Construction Skills Action Plan initiatives, over the next three years we expect to see enrolments increase in construction-related tertiary education, training and careers across all under-represented population groups.

“In addition, population projections inform us that 22% of Aotearoa’s total population will be people from ethnic communities, and our sector should ensure it is inclusive and attractive as a career destination for all New Zealanders.”

Dave MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport and infrastructure issues within New Zealand

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