Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.


Kids have dreams of becoming a doctor, a firefighter, or a pilot, but you’d struggle to find one that wanted to pursue a career in fixing poo pipes.

The headline figure from evidence backing the Government’s three waters reform is that up to $185b is needed over the next 30 years for water infrastructure.

Putting that sort of money in a budget line is one thing, whether it’s councils or new water management entities doing it, however actually finding people to undertake the work is another problem in itself.

Water in New Zealand is currently managed by 67 territorial authorities, Watercare, and Wellington Water.

The Government is in the middle of reforming local government’s three waters services into a small number of multi-regional entities.

The water sector workforce is projected to grow by 80 per cent above current levels over the next 30 years under the reform.

It’s estimated it will create up to 9300 extra jobs. GDP is forecast to increase by $14.4b.

In the meantime, councils have significantly increased spending on water infrastructure as they wake up to a crumbling pipe crisis.

But Wellington Water, which manages water assets for six councils, already believes it has “exhausted” all available frontline water personnel from the region.

The company’s latest update said it was “almost impossible” now to find trained frontline staff.

Deliverability is shaping up to be the next big challenge.

Last week the Department of Internal Affairs proactively released more than 600 pages of reports outlining expert evidence for the three waters reform.

One of them, by Deloitte, analysed some of the current and forecast issues with the water workforce through interviews with stakeholders.

It said the workforce was already under pressure and experiencing a shortage.

The situation will only be squeezed further as spending on three waters projects, shovel ready infrastructure projects, climate change, and RMA reforms increase nationally.

The workforce is ageing and the borders are shut due to Covid-19, exacerbating the situation.

In some regions information including the location and condition of assets is likely held through the institutional knowledge of the existing workforce, so there’s a risk that will be lost as people retire.

With the transtasman bubble in place there’s also the risk parts of the skilled workforce may move offshore where there is more money.

Meanwhile, our borders remain shut to countries like South Africa, the UK, and Ireland, which have previously been large sources of skilled and semi-skilled labour.

The Deloitte report said the most immediate pressure points were likely to be specialist water consultancy expertise, which is seen as scarce and “boots on the ground” labour.

Taituarā, a national membership organisation for local government professionals, has estimated growth in the labour force is likely to take between five and ten years to respond to increased demand and soak up the current shortage.

Water infrastructure is a complicated web of assets that is being dealt with using increasingly advanced technology.

For example, a group of technicians from Frankfurt left their families in the middle of the global Covid-19 pandemic to fix two sludge pipes which burst in Wellington last year.

They successfully installed specially designed sleeves to form a new lining in the pipes.

It was the largest-scale implementation of such technology in Australasia.

We need water expertise in New Zealand if the country is going to embark on such a massive overhaul of the sector.

The Deloitte report said better articulation of career opportunities, the increased sophistication of available roles, and the scale of the investment creates the prospect of elevating the status of a career in the water sector.

Officials are developing an industry and workforce transformation strategy to support the wider three waters industry to gear up to play its part in the reformed service delivery system.

In the meantime, Wellington Water is turning its attention to establishing a robust training pathway itself, starting with school leavers.

This would include on-the-job training with Wellington Water in parallel with their studies before being deployed into the workforce.

Underinvestment in our water pipes is partly due to them being out of sight and out of mind. Councils have instead funnelled money into more exciting bright and shiny projects.

Water infrastructure used to be an “un-sexy” spend, but it has become a top priority for many councils around the county as spectacular pipe failures make headlines.

We need to make working in the sector sexy too.

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