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The cut-throat race for broadband skills

You might recall my despair earlier this year when New Zealand came out of recession only to report skills shortages in the IT sector.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

You might recall my despair earlier this year when New Zealand came out of recession only to report skills shortages in the IT sector.

I blamed the universities then, but this time we might have another guilty party.

Now ETITO, a training standards organisation for telecommunications workers, fears the country might not have enough skilled engineers to roll out the billion-dollar-plus ultra-fast broadband (UFB) project!

"We can't quantify the inevitable spike in demand for cablers and cable-jointers until [network companies] start hiring and training, but certainly anecdotal feedback from training providers indicates that the industry is very much relying on its ability to train people quickly when the demand presents," said ETITO corporate relations manager Michael Frampton.

"We think that's a questionable strategy because training times have lengthened as technology has become more complex."

Furthermore, Frampton also told the New Zealand Herald that firms relying on importing workers would be a reckless strategy.

"We'd consider [that] risky, because telecommunications engineers, planners, cablers and line mechanics will all be in demand in Australia and Southeast Asia as their own ultra-fast broadband networks are constructed," he said.

With Australian wages being higher than those in New Zealand, I'd expect Australia's NBN to draw in what skilled Kiwis we already have, thus fuelling skills shortages that could certainly affect the roll-out of New Zealand's UFB project.

The New Zealand Labour Party ICT spokesperson Clare Curran has rightfully jumped on this issue.

There are mounting fears that the new Telecom split-off company, Chorus, will use an Australian contracting firm, Visionstream, to recruit cheap, foreign labour to lay broadband fibre. Industry insiders have confirmed that the company does not directly employ skilled fibre engineers or the workforce required to dig the trenches for the fibres, but uses contractors instead.

"It's widely recognised the government needs a highly skilled workforce to deliver its $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband scheme," Clare Curran said.

"ETITO, which sets the qualification standards for telco workers, says engineers with a specialised knowledge of fibre-optic cables are needed for this work, and the sector should be investing in more of these people now."

ICT Minister Steven Joyce denies a skills shortage problem exists, but the UFB and its related Rural Broadband Initiative will be a mammoth operation.

The roll-out in quake-hit Christchurch alone will see its successful bidder, Enable Networks, create 250 contracting and construction jobs within the next year.

Nationally, IT firms say the broadband roll-out will create a "jobs surge" in the coming years.

As I have long said, the broadband roll-out was a central plank of the National-led government's election in 2008, with Prime Minister John Key taking a personal interest in the project and appointing his most trusted minister Steven Joyce to deliver it.

Deliver it he has, almost, with the project jumping through all the regulatory and parliamentary hurdles, set to be well underway in time for this year's General Election.

So it would be the ultimate embarrassment if it was to falter because there were not enough skilled workers in New Zealand to carry out the work properly.

Joyce better be right when he says there are no skills shortages that would affect the roll-out and that the government has cash available for extra ICT training if need be.

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