15 November 2023

‘Opportunity to grow’: The grand idea to keep engineers in Southland

Brendan Gray of the Southland Engineering and Manufacturing Cluster has a huge job ahead of him.

As the cluster initiative’s newly appointed manager, Gray has been tasked with bringing together Southland engineering and manufacturing businesses to create a pool of industrial expertise that can collaborate and win national and international contracts.

The cluster, which is supported by the Southland Business Chamber, is a by-product of the Just Transition and Beyond 2025 projects aimed at helping the region transition to a more resilient economy.

It is looking to address the question: What will 3500 engineers and engineering-related professionals from the New Zealand Aluminium Smelters plant at Tiwai Point, near Bluff, do if and when the smelter shuts?

In May, the Labour Government gave the Southland Just Transition unit $8 million in funding to establish the cluster.

At the funding announcement, the energy and resources minister said the cluster was designed to help local firms diversify their clientele and seize new economic opportunities, while still supporting key existing industries.

As business clusters go, Gray said they often lacked enough funding and didn’t do well as a result. However, the Southland cluster initiative has five years of funding.

The Southland Business Chamber, which first proposed the cluster, wants it to build on the specialised engineering and services capabilities of smelter workers, develop collaborative projects, identify and support Southland businesses aspiring to grow, and provide easier access to new opportunities in emerging industries.

But what kind of engineering capabilities does Southland have?

“Really, really broad – no two shops are quite the same,” Gray said.

“They certainly have similar outputs, but it’s stuff that’s built up over the last 50 years whilst Tiwai has been operating. So it’s right from heavy fabrication, light fabrication, and general engineering, [and] then we’ve got structural sheet meddling.

“Obviously, boats is a big one down here, but trailers not so much.

“Boats that are built down here, unfortunately, sit on top of trailers that come out of the North Island. So we’ve still got an opportunity to grow engineering in Southland.”

Boosting local collaboration

Part of Gray’s job will be to “strengthen collaboration among our current engineering firms and actually join together to bid for big projects outside Southland”.

He said it would be better for Southland engineering firms to have their own people trained in the requirements of the industry, instead of getting people from Christchurch who would come down to do the work and then head home.

“What it might mean is that to meet project deadlines, we need two or three businesses prepared to come together and hand in a joint tender for this work locally and then look for international opportunities once we have the base well organised.”

Gray will also be exploring opportunities to promote engineering to students and young adults wanting to undertake training.

The cluster’s initial governance advisory group is made up of T4 Group chief executive Dean Addie, Fi Innovations chief executive Gareth Dykes, independent director Michelle Henderson, MPE managing director Chris Hughes, and E-Type Engineering managing director Phil McDowell.

Southland stood to benefit from the cluster’s focus on “sustained innovation”, Gray said.

“Whilst you are working in your business, we’ll be working on your business,” he said of business owners in the sector.

“It’s for the entire Southland engineering and manufacturing sector: talent cultivation, educational and vocational training, community engagement.

“There is obviously a desire to engage with our Māori and Pasifika and strengthen those relationships and the advocacy of opportunity coming through. All of us added together means economic resilience for Southland.”

Aquaculture spinoffs ‘would be awesome’

Gray said the government funding and the five-year time frame provided the necessary foundations from which to develop the cluster.

However, he said: “We would need to have, well before the five years, an idea of how this becomes self-sufficient, whether it is industry supported, [had] further government support – if that was an option – or subscription supported.”

What was he looking forward to the most in this role?

“Just making it work,” he said. “Bringing those opportunities to Southland, because we have an outstanding group of engineering firms.

“But also bringing additional industry into Southland. Aquaculture would be awesome, if we can increase aquaculture in Southland and then have spinoffs to engineering.”

Source: Stuff.co.nz – 10 November 2023

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