Imports urged to cope with rebuild

17:00, May 25 2012

One of Christchurch's leading builders warns Canterbury needs to keep an open mind about importing skilled labour and should start immediately.

Treasury forecast up to a 40 per cent jump in construction over the next three years in Thursday's Budget while Westpac chief economist Dominick Stephens has less bullish but still healthy forecasts for a 20 to 30 per cent increase in construction. Most of that was in Canterbury but some also in Auckland, Stephens said.

The big question was whether Canterbury and New Zealand could cope with a building boom greater than the 2004-2007 period, Stephens said.

Anthony Leighs, of Leighs Construction, said the idea of employing local people first and using other tradesmen from around the country was laudable but the region needed to be realistic.

Construction was quiet in other parts of New Zealand but not so quiet that workers were considering moving here.

The accommodation problem in Christchurch made shifting here even harder.


Leighs warned the rebuild could be hampered and "we don't cope" if there was not the right balance between experienced builders and newly trained local workers and bringing in skilled overseas builders.

"If we look too much to an inward policy or a domestic policy and get to a point in a couple of years time where we just are really constrained and things aren't happening because we haven't got the right numbers or the right skills ... then we could be struggling with demand."

People can be trained in two or three years but they did not have the skills of a builder with 20 years under his belt.

"We have to be very real how many skilled construction workers we can get through those schemes [training] and we have to have an open mind to look beyond New Zealand for our labour source to deal with this."

Treasury forecast a need for 17,000 more workers in Canterbury for the rebuild. "I believe the labour demand will be bigger. I don't have an exact number to offer you but I think the demand will be really strong," Leighs said.

While some commentators expect the commercial rebuild to ramp up a lot later than the rebuild of homes, Leighs said there was a good chance commercial building could come on stronger than some were expecting.

The initiatives for training workers in building skills were fantastic but "we need to be importing labour".

The building of new homes and commercial premises was only just starting in Canterbury and Leighs described it as the "greenshoots" of recovery beginning to thicken.

Even with this low level of building activity there was pressure to source skilled labour and the region needed more than it had now or could train in the next couple of years.

"I think there will also be a need for some international expertise and capital in addition to what we have," Leighs said.

He was "advanced" in his preparation to import workers but it would only be a small number at first and build up.

He believed other construction companies were also preparing to do the same. Ireland and Europe were obvious places to hire builders and South East Asia including the Philippines had a big pool of construction workers.

Leighs Construction was partnering with companies overseas for recruitment but would choose, vet and reference check its own workers, he said.

The big challenge was housing the workers and companies bringing them into Canterbury were responsible for that.