Opportunities and challenges ahead as infrastructure industry aims to build NZ out of recession

Billions of dollars will be spent on infrastructure projects to help rebuild the nation's economy but the construction sector is in dire need of skilled workers to make these happen.

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Billions of taxpayer dollars have been allocative to massive, big ticket projects aimed at helping the nation recover from the Covid-19 economic crisis. Source: 1 NEWS

By Amy Williams of

More than 800 people attended the construction sector's Rebuilding Nations Symposium in Auckland today, which continues tomorrow.

The government has committed more than $20 billion funding and investment towards projects designed to help rebuild the economy.

In her opening address, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said investment in infrastructure projects would help stimulate the economy and provide a pipeline of work.

It is a catch-22 for the sector, which is suffering a skills shortage made worse by the border closure - something Fletcher Construction, the country's largest infrastructure builder, is keen to address.

Chief executive Peter Reidy is part of a multi-sector steering group looking at opening up the border to skilled workers.

"We are at a crunch point," he said. "We do need to look offshore and bring people in at the higher end. We're not talking about cheap labour here, we're talking about really high level technical skills that can get projects moving."

He said conversations with government officials were progressing.

"I know from the construction sector we're working closely with them now on particular skill sets we need over the next year. They want to see the plan, the disciplines, by region and by project and I think that's a good start.

"I'd be hopeful within four to six months we'll start to see some new programmes there, which will mean we'll get a few more people through."

The government today announced it was rolling out a marketing blitz aimed at making vocational training a more attractive option for young people.

The number of those signing up has almost doubled to nearly 14,000 people since all apprenticeships were made free in July in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but some in the sector are concerned there is not enough information about exactly when these projects will kick off, and firms are wary of employing more people amidst the uncertainty.

Infrastructure New Zealand's policy director Hamish Glenn said there needed to be a clear picture of the projects that would start in the next few years.

"If you're a big contractor or designer or anybody involved in infra, what you need to know is when those projects are going to come to market ... so that you can tender for them, and that's what we are still yet to see."

He said those working in the construction industry were waiting for more certainty before taking on more staff or training others for roles needed for future projects.

"Everybody's been thinking 'crikey, I'm really busy but I don't know what I'm going to do in six months' and that means they're not investing enough in growth, in skills, in capital, so that we can build what we need to build."

The pressure on infrastructure is being felt in Auckland where the number of building consents reached a record high of 15,470 in the year to September.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff suggested a solution at the symposium.

"Further investment by the government in infra and in particular in our city would be most welcome. No pressure, prime minister."

The conference will continue tomorrow, with economists and Housing Minister Megan Woods talking about the housing crisis.