Fighting the Labour Shortage in the Water Industry: attracting and Retaining Immigrants and Women

G. Campos Balzat, N. A. Moraga Alcaino, A.L. Sadler GHD

Aotearoa is facing a significant labour shortage in the water sector in 2022, with thousands of skilled workers needed in the next 30 years to achieve safe drinking water standards across the country (Water New Zealand, 2022). Contributing factors to this shortage include COVID-related border closures and corresponding adjustments to New Zealand’s immigration settings during this time. These border closures have had the effect of preventing skilled migrants in the water sector from entering New Zealand and joining the labour market in this country for more than two years. Another contributing factor has been the loss of New Zealand based water sector labour to other jurisdictions, such as Australia and the UK, through emigration.

To date, there has been much discussion in the media about potential government initiatives to address the current generalised workforce shortage in New Zealand. The water sector has also published a number of reports on labour shortages, such as Mahere Whakamahinga: Workforce Activation Strategy (Waihanga Ara Rau, 2022), but the literature has not yet materially focused on the retention of women and immigrants in the water sector.

As of early 2022, demand for labour in Aotearoa was record high (New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, 2022). Government reforms of immigration policies, along with the re-opening of borders, should contribute to a greater inflow of specialised labour. However, granting visas and getting skilled workers into the country is just the first step. There is significant competition within the market, with employers vying to hire professionals when they arrive onshore. In addition, immigrants often experience a painful transition period when they start their first job in New Zealand and many employers may be poorly equipped to provide the level of support needed. Once employees are settled, retention becomes the main concern, as organisations risk losing new staff to other national industries or countries.

Attracting and retaining female workers in the water market – and in the engineering, construction, and infrastructure sectors more generally – is another ongoing issue. There is an increasing number of programmes to encourage girls to study engineering related fields in New Zealand; however, the water industry is still strongly male-dominated. Moreover, there are documented challenges in retaining women who decide to work in this field. For example, Devonshire and Davidson (2020) demonstrate that women are more likely than men to leave engineering early in their careers. All of these factors contribute to the current workforce shortage.

This paper explores some issues faced by women and immigrants and their experiences working in the New Zealand water industry. The paper also outlines a range of initiatives that could be trialled to attract and retain these key demographic groups, and to create environments in which a diverse range of people could thrive. The discussion draws on insights from quantitative and qualitative research with individual practitioners, and national and international studies and initiatives.


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03 Nov 2022

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