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Significant need for growth in the water and wastewater sector – report

New Zealand’s water sector needs to do more to attract a talent pool to meet clean water and improving environmental standards, according to a new report.

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Water New Zealand estimates the sector needs an additional 6,000 to 9,000 skilled workers over the next 30 years as the government prepares to push its three-water reforms through parliament.

The report, which is a collaboration between Water New Zealand, Waihanga Ara Rau, the Department of Home Affairs, Taumata Arowai, Connexis and industry leaders, details strategies for attracting, developing and retaining a workforce that is “almost invisible to outsiders”.

Water New Zealand chief executive Gillian Blythe said between $120 billion and $185 billion in investment over the next 30 years would require a wide range of additional staff, including operators, engineers and scientists from the climate and data.

“You can’t have that amount of investment without increasing the number of people involved in designing, building, maintaining, and operating that kind of infrastructure,” she said.

The report revealed that the sector is not sufficiently prepared to build and operate new state-of-the-art water infrastructure over the next decade, in the face of record unemployment, immigration restrictions and competition with construction and other industries.

Small providers often lack specialist skills, while a “cheapest wins” approach to contracts has limited the ability of some to train and employ apprentices, the report said.

“What usually happens is that the big companies pick up all the work because they have the ability to deliver. But then they outsource all the work – so they take massive markups on the jobs, cutting opportunity to train apprentices,” said one industry member.

The report also highlights the challenge of gender diversity, with data showing that only 6% of water operators in Aotearoa are women.

“The male operators we spoke to saw no reason why more women should not be able to take on operator positions; however, there was a sense that women are fully accepted once they become “one of the boys,” the report says.

Jobs in the industry are not as well paid as in many other sectors and employees often work long hours, according to the report.

Water and wastewater operators with up to two years of experience earn between $42,000 and $70,000, while team leaders or managers earn up to $130,000.

“With the need to address a huge infrastructure deficit, massive labor competition and ongoing immigration restrictions, there is a significant need for growth in the sector. With many of the most skilled workers set to retire over the next decade, planning for succession as one of the biggest challenges in the water industry,” the report states.

The report makes 14 recommendations, including creating better career paths for school leavers and progression for those already employed in the sector.

Under the Three Waters proposal, four large entities would manage the management of drinking water, waste and rainwater instead of 67 municipalities.