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Movers and shakers

The recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, has underlined how urgently the country needs an influx of engineers. Olivia Gagan reports.

The 7.1 earthquake that struck Christchurch on 4 September was the most destructive to hit New Zealand in 80 years, damaging 100,000 homes and severing vital infrastructure links.

Power, water and food supplies were severely disrupted by the quake, whose epicentre hit 30km west of the city. It has also produced major aftershocks that have continued to disrupt reconstruction of the city.
Infrastructure, from the city’s sewerage system to airport runways, has all had to either be temporarily closed or suspended as engineers have worked to restore the damage.

“New Zealand has a very enabling environment, where you feel you can make things happen”

Robert Hillier, Tonkin & Taylor

 

Outside the city transport links are also in disarray. Major bridges near the city survived the impact, but many minor bridges are now unsafe. As well, extensive damage was caused to 4km of rail track linking Christchurch with ferry services to the country’s North Island, with landslips and track displacements causing speed restrictions and in some cases complete line closures.

It is testament to the engineering skills of the builders of Christchurch’s existing infrastructure that there was only one death as a result of the quake. But there is now an urgent call for a new generation of infrastructure to repopulate the damaged city centre.

Skill shortage

Even without the immediate pressures of a major earthquake upon the country’s engineering resources, it is clear that, like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand is in dire need of more engineers. The reasons for this are manifold: a lack of young graduates with civils qualifications is one, coupled with the sheer amount of work to be done on major infrastructure.

New Zealand is also losing young engineers to Australia, which is experiencing a shortage of engineers as its mining and construction activities undergo a boom period. And New Zealand is about to enter into its own age of intense engineering activity.

In recent decades, its construction industry has concentrated on small residential projects, but demands on civil engineering resources have increased as the country focuses on its basic infrastructure, with prime minster John Key announcing £231M of investment to accelerate housing and transport projects over the next year, and a £240M school building project. Shane Little, Australasia regional director of Hays Construction & Property says: “There is a huge demand for skills in the engineering sector, which will only increase as tenders are allocated and large project teams are assembled.”

Move from Kent

British geotechnical engineer Robert Hillier made the move from Kent to New Zealand in 2006. After accepting a position with environmental and engineering consultancy Tonkin & Taylor as a geotechnical engineer, he has now progressed to group geotechnical manager, with responsibility for 50 staff.

New Zealand presents a unique opportunity for a geotechnical engineer, says Hillier. “NZ’s young geology is full of challenges. Natural hazards including floods and landslides are almost a routine situation.” Continually contributing to new and expanding infrastructure, rather than maintenance and upgrading of existing structures, provides good job satisfaction and a real sense of contribution to society, he adds.

Seismic design

Engineering design in New Zealand invariably includes provision against seismic hazards. “We hope that we never have to see our designs tested in such a manner,” says Hillier. However, more than 16,000 insurance claims are being processed following extensive liquefaction, lateral spread and bearing capacity failures since the September quake, with more than 1,200 homes likely to be demolished.

“It will be a huge challenge to rebuild communities. Severe damage has resulted in complete loss of a number of homes and associated damage to supporting infrastructure,” says Hillier, who has an overall management role for this major project.

Management itself is different in New Zealand to the UK, he adds, without “the encumbrance of over-regulation. It is a very enabling environment, where you feel you can really make things happen. Greater responsibility equals greater job satisfaction”.

And there are still plenty of opportunities for UK-based engineers to make the leap and search out work, he says. Tonkin & Taylor is one of several firms currently recruiting with relocation allowances available. “There are huge opportunities in New Zealand, and engineers are in demand,” says Hillier.

 

 

 

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