Local Government Magazine

Water reforms point to need for more skills

As the three waters industry grapples with a looming skills shortage, Water New Zealand chief executive Gillian Blythe looks at some of the opportunities for those already in the sector as well as for those considering a career in water.
The Government is moving quickly ahead with its three waters reforms, but whatever the outcome it’s clear that water is a growth area and the changes already underway will provide some big opportunities across the spectrum.

 Ever since the Havelock North water contamination inquiry shone the spotlight on the gaps in the sector, and in particular drinking water, the big focus has been the Government’s moves to establish a new fit for purpose drinking water regime.

The inquiry’s findings were the harbinger of the reform process under way right now.  But what’s also been evident for some time has been the need to address high vacancy rates, a lack of robust, formal training and consequent skills shortages.

 It’s now clear that if the Government’s vision of a fit for purpose drinking water regime is to be achieved, a resilient, fit for purpose workforce is needed. That will hinge on ensuring that enough people with the right skills and qualifications can be attracted to work in the three waters and that the industry can retain skilled staff.

Our latest National Performance Review (NPR) found an eight percent vacancy rate across the country and only 77 percent of budgeted capital expenditure in the past financial year was spent due in large part to a lack of people to deliver projects. 

Forty-two local authorities covering 90 percent of the population participate in the NPR, our national comparative benchmarking tool.

The NPR found that there are around 2745 full time workers employed by the participants. But with investment up to $160 billion needed over the next 30-40 years there will need to be a significant lift in water sector jobs. 

The high vacancy rates and lack of formal qualifications and career pathways has been something that the sector has known about and been grappling with for some years now.  The reforms signal a new urgency.

So, what have we in the water sector been doing to attract more people?

Staff shortages, while they are becoming more acute, are not new and so for the past year we’ve been responding by working on a raft of new initiatives.

First and foremost, it’s vital to have an industry-accepted skills and professional development programme so that it’s clear that those in the workforce can have proven recognised skills in the same way that an electrician or plumber would have.

This lack of formal qualifications and clear career pathway is recognised as a disincentive for new entrants into the water area.

That’s why we’ve been begun to work with partners including Taumata Arowai, and Connexis on a workforce development strategy that will seek to address the barriers and deterrents.

Our strategy will look at what needs to happen over the next five to 10 years to attract the right kinds of people into the sector and ensure, once they’re with us, they have a satisfying career with opportunities to grow.

The other key initiative already underway, especially for many of those already working in the water sector is our work with the Water Industry Professionals Association.  Through some of these programmes, operators – whether they work in drinking or wastewater – can gain formal credits through attending approved industry-related courses, ensuring continuous professional development. Once again, a career pathway is a vital consideration for any young person entering the workforce. 

Beyond this we recognise that with a myriad of opportunities and different providers there’s a need to avoid confusion, especially for those considering a career in water.

We also recognise that there is a need to be more proactive in promoting the water sector as a great place to work.  We’re getting excited about one of our latest ventures – the development of our Working for Water website which we hope will provide easy and informative access to the opportunities in the sector and of course the benefits of working in water.  This is definitely a space to watch over the coming months.

Water is an extremely complex, specialist area and the opportunities for career growth, especially in the long term, are significant.

It’s an industry that is certainly coming of age and increasingly being recognised as not only a great place for a long-term secure career, but also as a rewarding vocation for those interested in giving back to their communities and environment. LG

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