Waikato and Bay of Plenty's building industry is approaching 2018 with confidence and significant work ahead.
However, the Government's recent commitment to build 100,000 new houses in 10 years has prompted industry commentators to emphasis the on-going issue with finding, training and retaining skilled staff.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's (MBIE) National Construction Pipeline Report shows the Waikato – Bay of Plenty chalked up 19 per cent growth in residential building in 2016, on top of a 21 per cent increase in 2015.
Commercial construction activity grew by 15 per cent in 2016, while infrastructure activity remained level at $1.3 billion.
The report says these trends are expected to continue with non-residential building activity forecast to grow by another 29 per cent before levelling out in 2020, and residential building by 34 per cent before levelling out in 2021.
The ministry's Future Demand for Construction Workers forecast shows Waikato and Bay of Plenty construction-related employment demand increases by an overall 9 per cent to nearly 82,000 employees by 2021.
The occupations forecast to experience the highest growth include civil engineering (9 per cent), electricians (8 per cent) and plumbers (7 per cent).
Livingstone Building project manager Bevan McKeany said the company was looking forward to a busy 2018 with work including fixing leaky schools, commercial and commercial retail projects, retirement villages in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Northland, and a variety of projects almost from one end of New Zealand to the other.
The company has 47 apprentices in the Waikato, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty regions, with a focus on training people through "learning while they earn" opportunities.
"There is a regional shortage of carpenters within the industry," McKeany said.
"We are always on the hunt for skilled labour, including qualified carpenters, and use a number of methods to try and recruit. This busy time within the industry means finding skilled workers will become harder before it becomes easier, which is the number one reason we train and work hard to retain our team," he said.
Foster Construction general manager Nigel Sun said 2018 was shaping up to be similar to 2017 with a mixture of large, medium and small projects, ranging from a 36,000 square-metre- factory to a car dealership.
Sun said increasing construction activity was compounding an existing shortage of skilled labour,which often became apparent when multiple projects "bottlenecked" and required the same skills and labour.
This placed a lot of pressure on employees, suppliers, and subcontractors.
Tradestaff chief executive Janice McNab said her company placed about 1500 people a week nationally into work, with the majority going into trades and construction.
"Throughout the Waikato and Bay of Plenty both areas are growing and will continue to grow and will need a growing workforce to do the practical work."
McNab said most of the workforce comprised New Zealanders and "returned New Zealanders".
However, of those from overseas, there were either on a working holiday visa or in the skilled migrant category.
"We can't run the risk of turning that tap off. If skilled people move to New Zealand and make the effort to bring their families and their whole life here, there must be a clear path to settlement.
"We are going to need them more and more as we reach a critical tipping point – ageing population. The need will be constant."
McNab said New Zealand had to rely on lifestyle to attract foreign workers as it could not compete on pay levels.
Geoff Hunt, chairman of the Construction Strategy Group (CSG), said the appointment of Jenny Salesa as the new Building and Construction Minister was a positive sign for the industry.
A briefing paper to the minister from the CSG urged a fresh approach to meet the challenges facing the construction industry.
"New Zealand's construction industry will spend more than $300b over the next decade and employs 9 per cent of the country's workforce but its productivity is lagging.
"Our immediate issues are that New Zealand massively under-invests in workforce training at all levels. There is the scope to improve our performance by 50 or 60 per cent with re-skilling the workforce, greater use of technology and reshaping regulation.
Labour demand in construction-related companies is forecast to increase by 11 per cent by 2022. Many roles in the sector require higher skilled workers with post-school qualifications.
"We need to get more students to undertake higher education in construction-related education.
"That includes higher-skilled roles such as construction project managers, civil engineering professionals and architectural, building and surveying technicians."
Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation chief executive Warwick Quinn said a new approach to training would be launched before Christmas, aimed at encouraging more people into the building industries and recognising the skills of those who are already there.
"We have a group of initiatives designed to improve the flexibility of training which are called 'micro or stackable credentials'."
"In the old days the traditional carpenter was trained in everything but in the past 25 years there has been a huge growth in specialisation. Contractors come in to do kitchens, frames, steel tying, scaffolding. There are gangs which specialise and this makes things a lot faster.
"We're hoping to attract more people into training and build up their skills over a period of time."
Quinn said nationally there was a need for about 56,000 people in the construction industry in the next five years; everything from engineers to administration.
Wintec recently launched its 2018 Trades Training Scholarships, which offer fee-free training across a range of pre-trades courses. These include construction, plumbing, gasfitting, drainlaying and electrical engineering.
Meanwhile, Waikato District Council has initiated a partnership with Wintec to create employment opportunities for civil engineering students and develop highly-skilled and well-rounded staff members.
The first intake happens next year and includes on-the- job work packages and specific training. Council will pay successful students a salary during the cadetships, as well as fund course fees, Pitts said.