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“Our government clients see our employment of local people as being very beneficial to their economy,” he says. “And while it is no longer so common to be required to employ a certain number of local people as a condition of a contract, it just makes good sense; not only from a community perspective – but also from a business perspective.” Training local workers is helping the company develop a skilled offshore workforce that it can draw on for other projects. Among Downer’s recent contracts was a ring road in Vanuatu, completed in 2010. More than 300 local people were employed, along with 30 expat New Zealanders to build bridges and a 150km road around the island of Efate. Downer has also since delivered a $20 million project to bring the airport at Munda, in the Solomon Islands, up to an international standard. The runway was inaugurated by NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully during an official visit to the islands in August 2013. Oldman says the work done by the firm in the Pacific is usually not technically challenging but that doesn’t lessen the outcome required of each task. “If we are going to build a bridge, it will likely be a straightforward bridge that won’t win architectural awards, but does its job very well,” he says. “Our technical challenges in the Pacific Islands are not huge, but we still have to deliver a good quality job.” For that, Downer needs a workforce that has the skills required and that will work to the rhythms and disciplines of an international business. And therein lies the challenge for Downer, since working 10-hour days, six days a week, is not something most Islanders normally do. Oldman points out that the people hired to work on the Vanuatu ring road project would typically have spent their days working in the mornings – perhaps picking fruit for sale at a local market – before going home for lunch and a rest in the afternoon. “One of the issues we had to tackle was having them adopt the habit of working regularly,” he says. “While we were working six days a week, some of those applying to join us were happy to work four days a week – because that gave them more than enough money to live on.” “We need to help people understand what we are trying to achieve and how to go about it – that we can’t run a project based on people who come to work only when they feel like it. You have to be reasonably disciplined in your approach,” says Oldman. WHERE IN THE WORLD…? Vanuatu, officially the Republic of Vanuatu, is an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, is 1,750km east of northern Australia, 500km northeast of New Caledonia, west of Fiji, and southeast of the Solomon Islands, near New Guinea. The learning works both ways, he adds – and cites a problem that, by paying closer attention to its cause, he saw had a simple solution. Some workers would go home for lunch and not return in the afternoon. “By lunch time they had run out of energy, they had nothing left in the tank,” Oldman says. He realised that most of them didn’t bring water to work – let alone anything to eat – so local people were hired to cook food and bring it to the work site every lunch time. Oldman says learning to work with each other is a two-way street. “Our people have to fit in with the local culture and customs. We insist that our Kiwi staff are respectful of local people and their customs, as we know we are guests in their country,” says Oldman. “But we have standards and a work ethic that we expect all staff to follow. It actually doesn’t take long to sort that out.” After a project has been completed, Downer’s relationship continues with many of the Islanders it has employed. “To help with the airport project in the Solomon Islands we have brought in about eight people who trained on the Vanuatu ring road project,” says Oldman. “They are now expert operators of plant and equipment. Others work with us as laboratory assistants. We have about 10 Fijians working as mechanics with us; others are supervisors and engineers who we take from job to job.” This is clearly good business for all concerned. DOWNER / IN BLACK & WHITE / 25


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