Skills shortages top barrier to business growth – what can we do about it?


By Roger Evans
Stafford Engineering and Smart Waikato Trust

Roger Evans

Roger Evans

My journey began in the early 2000s when skills shortages began impeding the growth and capacity of my business, spring-boarding my involvement in regional labour market development.

Right now, there is real concern about the impact of accelerated economic growth on the labour market especially if there is no strategy and buy-in to build the required workforce and develop the talent we need to take our businesses to the next level.

If we are to reap the rewards from economic expansion, business needs to step up to build, and invest in, the future workforce.

With the world of work undergoing rapid change, technology transforming jobs, changing demographics and accelerating growth, competition for skills is not going away

Yes, some young people may not be work ready but there are plenty of employers who are not ready for them either.

Today’s youth grow up in a world quite different than we did so it’s understandable they think and act differently. We are the adults and it’s up to us to help them transition into work rather than expect them to be like we were.

NEET youth (Not in Education, Employment or Training) come from all sectors of society, not just the disadvantaged. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago my own daughter was NEET, and this from a family with networks and connections.

What really astounds me is the biggest cohort of these young people are 19 to 24-year-olds, many of who have completed or partly completed tertiary study and can’t find their way into the labour market. Who is taking responsibility here?

In the early 2000s the engineering industry experienced significant skill shortages and we struggled to attract good young people.

This was due in part to the erroneous message that the pathway to a successful career required a degree. Unfortunately, this left many young people and their parents believing that trades were a dead-end.

In 2003 my former Wintec tutor called a meeting of industry leaders and described the looming skills shortage. From that meeting the Waikato Engineering Careers Association (WECA) was born and I accepted the role of Chair.

In 2007 I connected with Katolyst (the original Waikato Economic Development Agency) with the view that people were the key to economic development. Funding was found to employ a person to focus on the issue of skill shortage and Mary Jensen was by far the most outstanding candidate.

Following the subsequent winding down of Katolyst, Mary convinced me to stay the course and Smart Waikato Trust (SWT) was established with a focus on empowering young people through real education to employment pathways.

Being involved has been good for my business, as I’ve personally connected with technology teachers, who have fed the best talent into our cadet and apprentice programmes.

At Stafford, the pool of young men from farming backgrounds we have traditionally relied on to staff our business will dry up.

We have recently undertaken a survey at Stafford Engineering to encourage our team to further embrace diversity. We’ll try to balance the gender ratio in an industry that is traditionally male, as well as offering more opportunity to young Māori. Exposing our business to these groups is part of our strategy.

Working with WECA and SWT has expanded my involvement in, and knowledge of, other sectors and engendered within me a vision and commitment for change.

Collectively employers need to help prepare young people for the transition to employment, and this is where organisations like these come in.

What can you do to help?
Invest in your workforce – grow your own. It doesn’t happen by itself. Get involved by connecting with secondary schools (Smart Waikato’s Secondary School Employer Partnerships (SSEP) is a great example), tertiary providers, Industry Training Organisations and embrace initiatives like SSEP, WECA and Cultivate IT, Waikato’s IT cluster.

For me, the answer is simple: ongoing economic development funding channelled into labour market development and business taking ownership, collaborating and being part of the solution.


Roger started his career as a plastics engineering cadet at Trigon Plastics, a “wonderful training programme” that quickly led to management roles. This training model led him to being closely involved in establishing Waikato Engineering Careers Association in 2002 and Smart Waikato Trust in 2009, organisations helping young people to transition from education to employment. Roger and his brother Don started Stafford Industries in 1986, specialising in engineering for the food processing, packaging and materials handling industries.

Smart Waikato’s Secondary School Employer Partnerships have been named finalists in the Economic New Zealand MBIE Excellence Awards for 2018, in the Best Practice in Collaboration category.


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