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Rebuilding lives

The U Build 4 The Rebuild training programme students

After the Christchurch earthquakes, it was estimated the city needed 1000 extra workers to rebuild its infrastructure in the next five to seven years—a job that would normally take 20 years. The Salvation Army Education and Employment service has joined the rebuild effort with its ‘U Build 4 the Rebuild’ initiative—helping provide jobs for those who need it, while creating workers that contribute to the city.

The six-week course was developed in partnership with InfraTrain, the leading infrastructure industry training organisation, and SCIRT (The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team). It was identified that the first need for the rebuild was for ‘horizontal infrastructure’, which is everything ‘on and below the ground’, including roading, waste and stormwater.

The first-ever course, based at Aranui Corps (church) in Christchurch East (which was hit hard by the quakes), began in June 2012 with five trainees—affectionately dubbed the ‘famous five’. All these graduates are still working, and most are still in the infrastructure industry.

‘U Build’ has just embarked on its 13th course, and the results so far have been stunning. There is a 98 per cent attendance rate, and 83 per cent of trainees have secured employment as a result of the course.

The average age of the trainees is 40-plus. Many lost their jobs after the earthquakes, are retraining, or have been on minimum wage their whole life.

A man named Joe* was on the first course. He was a contract milkman in Christchurch East, and lost his job when the earthquakes struck. On the day Joe arrived for the course, his car was repossessed. ‘We just picked him up and supported him, and we were able to get him a bicycle,’ recalls project manager Robyn Laurenson. With all the turmoil he was facing, Joe suffered from anger issues. But he started biking 45 minutes to the course and attended the gym as part of his training, which helped him manage his anger. He started to sleep better and get fit. Joe got work in a Christchurch infrastructure company and has been there ever since—and he still bikes to work every day.

Fred* came to the course from Dunedin. He had spent his working life doing minimum wage, hard labour. He had been through a marriage break up and had a three-year-old daughter. As a result of his situation, Fred had suffered anxiety and depression. He had been out of work for two years.

Fred was helped with accommodation and surrounded with support. After the course, Fred got a job at $15 an hour, and after a few months was taken on permanently and given a raise to $19.50. He is soon expected to get another raise. ‘I’m not on the minimum wage now, I’ve got a career,’ Fred says. And best of all, his employer has worked with him to schedule time off each month so that Joe can visit his daughter. ‘I’m not just paying child support, I can do things with her and spoil her a bit,’ he says.

The secret of the course’s success has been ‘quality over quantity’, says Robyn, with an average of seven trainees each intake: ‘We deal with every individual on a case-by-case basis, and we’re connected to other Salvation Army services for things like budget advice and food parcels,’ she explains. ‘Often, our trainees haven’t had a very good relationship with schooling, so the short course suits them, and they get a lot of TLC.’ Trainees have been supported to manage fines, get vehicles registered and warranted, and simply get a second chance in life. One man was even able to get his teeth fixed because he finally had work and was earning money.

Trainees have to be highly motivated and are interviewed by Robyn, a tutor and a SCIRT assessor.

SCIRT is an alliance of major contractors in the infrastructure industry. After the earthquakes, instead of competing for work, well-known names like Fulton Hogan and Fletcher—along with many others—agreed to work together to harness their shared expertise. CEO Duncan Gibbs regularly attends the graduation ceremonies.

‘He loves U Build and he loves what The Salvation Army is doing,’ says Robyn.

The free course begins with two weeks of ‘work readiness’, where trainees attend the gym twice a week to get fit. Their tutor—a trained chef—provides training in nutrition, and the trainees put on a lunch every Thursday. This requires managing a budget, working as a team, putting together a menu and other life skills. The course starts at 7 am every day to reflect industry hours.

Trainees are expected to have their driver’s licence, and are put through their ‘wheels, tracks and rollers’ licence (WTR), which allows them to operate diggers and other machinery. During the course, trainees gain 20 credits towards a National Certificate of Infrastructure to give them a step-up into the industry—including training in traffic management and site safety.

Twice a week, SCIRT representatives visit the course, to advise the trainees. These representatives have a strong relationship with key agencies in the industry.

This personal contact is invaluable. A 54-year-old man attended the course, even though he already had his WTR licence. He had a full face moko, and when he met potential employers they didn’t seem interested in hiring him. Coupled with a criminal record, it was proving extremely difficult for him to find a job. But with SCIRT assessors visiting regularly, he found personal contacts that were there to support him. They sat down and the SCIRT assessor said, ‘Look, as long as you’re upfront about your criminal record, you can still have a future in this industry.’ He got a permanent job with a Christchurch concreting firm. ‘I got a text from him at Christmas saying, “Thank you for believing in me,” ’ recalls Robyn.

U Build 4 the Rebuild recently had 11 of its graduates back for a further certificate in traffic management, which allows them to be supervisors at road works, and there are further plans for expansion as the rebuild efforts continue. ‘It’s a privilege to walk with people while they are going through these life transitions. It really is very humbling,’ reflects Robyn. ‘And that’s a sentiment shared by the tutors as well.’

*Names of trainees have been changed.

For more info on the U Build 4 The Rebuild, go to or phone 0800 YOU BUILD (0800 968 28453)