Engineering sector embracing diversity to address its skills shortage

Waikato Engineering Careers Association (WECA) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gathering of more than 100 engineering leaders, educators and supporters in an event that featured the launch of the Waikato Engineering Education Fund. The Fund spearheads a direct regional response to a growing skills shortage by championing innovation and supporting under-represented groups who are critical to making up the industry’s projected shortfall of 40,000 workers over the next five years.

“Skills shortage was very much the driver behind WECA’s formation,” says Manager, Sally Birch. “To help combat that, one of our priorities has been to lift the lid on what an engineering career is. The sector is so diverse with dozens of different roles; there’s a place for everybody and all skill sets.” “Before WECA was established, engineering and manufacturing was somewhat a hidden industry,” says WECA General Manager, Mary Jensen. “WECA has been able to bring our sector to life for young people. It’s paid off, with those businesses who have been involved for 20 years still around today – a testament to the fact that training and growing your own workforce from the ground up grows strong businesses.”

Since its inception in 2003, WECA has worked to address the disconnection between the tertiary education system and employers, with the end goal of enabling them to work more collaboratively to build a sustainable workforce. Hanga-Aro-Rau Workforce Development Council (WDC) is now working alongside WECA to see those collaborative aspirations realised.

The industry research conducted by Hanga-Aro-Rau has been really helpful,” Sally says, “in showing our members the need to diversify and increase engagement. Engineering businesses need to be prepared to do things differently than they’ve done in the past; the statistics provided by Hanga-Aro-Rau have helped us to communicate that.”

“The research they did with Deloitte is good,” Mary agrees. “It’s helping to model staffing needs for the future.”

Hanga-Aro-Rau has also provided early-stage support for WECA’s members in the Advanced Manufacturing space, Mary says. “We’re currently developing a qualification that we hope will help bring more people into manufacturing by showing clear pathways that make the sector more attractive to new employees. Hanga-Aro-Rau has been providing expertise to navigate that qualification process, without reinventing the wheel.”

In addition to her role as General Manager, Mary represents WECA on the Industry Stakeholder Group (ISG) for Hanga-Aro Rau which, she says, has provided an important opportunity for feedback on behalf of industry. In May 2023, the ISG led an independent performance evaluation of the Hanga-Aro-Rau Council. “Having a voice there has been beneficial. Hanga-Aro-Rau is being led well by smart people who are open to feedback; we know that there is an opportunity to work even more closely with the Board to give feedback on what industry needs.”

Sally and Mary agree that a skills body is necessary for the engineering industry to thrive. “There needs to be cohesion between industry and training; without it, the gulf between education and the workplace widens,” Sally says. “Many of the companies we talk to could be doing more work if they had more staff,” Mary adds. “A structure is needed that works closely with employers to support that. This is the way to make New Zealand more productive; getting the labour skills supply and demand in sync so we don’t always have to look to immigration to fill those gaps. There are plenty of unemployed young people out there who could be trained in the right way for our workforce needs.”

WECA General Manager Mary Jensen and Hanga-Aro-Rau CE Phil Alexander-Crawford

Hanga-Aro-Rau CE Phil Alexander-Crawford and WECA General Manager Mary Jensen at the WECA 20th anniversary event on Thursday 31 August, held at The Pā, University of Waikato, Hamilton.