How do we shape a profession that’s reflective of Aotearoa?

In August we hosted an online panel discussion about the low number of Māori engineers and what can be done to make the profession more encouraging and inclusive of our indigenous people. The kōrero took place between four expert engineers – Lincoln Timoteo, Chantelle Bailey, Troy Brockbank, and Warner Cowin who generously shared their experiences and insights as minority voices working in Aotearoa New Zealand’s construction industry.

Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi – With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

This whakataukī captures the essence of partnership: sharing resources for everyone’s benefit. It’s a fundamental tenet of Te Ao Māori.

A number of firms in the construction industry are now taking practical steps to recognise the critical importance of building partnerships with Māori and, as part of that, building their own cultural competence through increased use of te reo Māori, tikanga, and mātauranga Māori.

Some firms are at an early stage, focusing on the increased use of te reo Māori and taking initial steps to build relationships with their local marae. Other firms are further along, with strategies and people dedicated to building partnerships with Māori communities and investing in developing the leadership potential of Māori staff members. Regardless of whether firms are just starting, or have already well-embedded programmes and practices, they share a genuine interest in engaging with Te Ao Māori and learning more. All our panelists had practical advice for firms wanting to do more to explore and embrace Te Ao Māori.

The wero (challenge) for construction and engineering

This mahi (work) is crucial because there’s a long-standing legacy of Māori values, perspectives and people being at the margins of the industry, or not acknowledged at all.

There is quite a lot of Māori in the construction industry, it’s just that the majority of them are at that labour skill level” noted Troy Brockbank (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi), Kaitohutohu Matua Taiao / Senior Environmental Consultant at WSP.

All our panellists highlighted how isolating it felt often being the only Māori engineer involved in projects. Troy was frank in his assessment of the profession:

“Engineering… we’re one of the worst industries for Māori representation at all levels. I tell my kids, I’m working to making a difference to that now and there are others also are making that difference, so when you are grown up and if you chose to go into engineering, you’re not going to be alone .”

Data from our 2019 Diversity Agenda survey reinforces our panelists’ experiences, with Māori and Pasifika making up only six percent of the architecture and engineering workforce – compared to 45% identifying as New Zealand European. A recent Spinoff article ‘Building Equity into the infrastructure-led recovery for Māori and Pasifika’ highlights the implication of these figures on our wider society.

The under-representation of Māori is an issue that affects the health of the industry as a whole, a point which Lincoln Timoteo (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, Te Ātiawa, Tokelau, Airangi), Site Engineer, Fletcher Construction, highlighted:

“Māori have learnt to look at things holistically, so when we look at the wellbeing of our industry and the wellbeing of Māori, we tend to take a more balanced approach.”

Lincoln discussed Te Whare Tapa Whā – a model created by leading Māori health advocate, Sir Mason Durie. Based on a holistic Māori perspective of health and wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā uses the metaphor of the four sides (taha) of a whare (house), with each side representing a different dimension of wellbeing: taha tinana (physical wellbeing), taha hinengaro (mental wellbeing), taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing), and taha whānau (family wellbeing). All four sides are needed and must be in balance for the whare to be strong.

Referencing Tamarapa Lloyd’s article He oranga mo Aotearoa: Māori wellbeing for all and applying the principles of Te Whare Tapa Whā, Lincoln pointed out that because some people in the industry were not doing well, it affects the health of the industry as a whole:

“When we have this group in the industry who are suffering, it affects the rest of the industry’s wellbeing. Thankfully the industry has recognised some of these problems – such as the need for more women. And it’s much the same for Māori – there’s room for improvement.”

Sentiments that are supported by growing evidence from around the world that businesses with more diverse workforces outperform businesses with more homogenous staffing in multiple areas, including revenue and profitability.[1] 

The importance of giving Te Ao Māori its own place

One question asked of our panelists was how to respond to people who asked why te reo and mātauranga Māori should be elevated above other languages and cultures.

Troy stated that the heart of the answer is “it comes down to our obligation to upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we have these two sides: tāngata whenua and tāngata tiriti.” In order to give mana to te reo and mātauranga Māori they need to stand alone: “companies should avoid only incorporating Māori initiatives with other cultural or social responses. Te Ao Māori should stand alone as its own pillar. Te Tiriti o Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document; therefore, it should have its own mana.”

That doesn’t mean organisations can’t be inclusive of other cultures, but it’s important to acknowledge the unique status of Māori as the indigenous people of Aotearoa and as partners with the Crown under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Incorporating mātauranga Māori into the business leads to better project outcomes

“Sometimes the hardest part of our job isn’t the technical area, but the part when we have to work with other parts of our community,” noted Warner Cowin (Ngāti Porou), CE of Height Project Management, with more than 20 years’ experience in civil and structural engineering.

“The challenge is often how do we work with others? If we don’t have diversity within our team and businesses, then it’s hard to reflect and empathise with the people you’re working with. There’s massive strength in diversity and particularly with Māori.”

Chantelle Bailey (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi), Senior Structural Engineer at Aurecon has also observed the tangible benefits of bringing awareness of Te Ao Māori to projects:

“Early intervention, facilitating advice, and listening to local iwi will greatly improve the success of engineering projects… Early consultation with iwi is often rewarded, in terms of project programme and budget… When projects are in the prelim/conceptual stage, developing and building a relationship with local iwi should have proper due diligence undertaken to ensure the success of the project and buy-in from all stakeholders.”

Chantelle has seen what happens when early consultation with iwi hasn’t occurred, resulting in increased costs and extended project timeframes.

Non-Māori have an important role to play

A significant topic of discussion was the importance of non-Māori taking the initiative to bring mātauranga Māori into their businesses.

“It’s also not entirely up to Māori alone to bring mātauranga into companies. Everyone should have a cultural understanding and bring mātauranga into their workplace. But there needs to be a cultural induction and awareness, where companies are making sure mātauranga Māori is accessible to everybody. That’s a great way to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to incorporating Te Ao Māori and Māori world views” said Troy.

Making this an organisation-wide initiative helps avoid the misstep of making tokenistic attempts to acknowledge te reo and mātauranga Māori. Chantelle cautioned against simply relying on Māori staff members to educate the rest of the staff.

“It’s important to note firms should avoid approaching Māori employees to present on Te Tiriti, if this is outside of their normal responsibilities. It’s time-consuming and puts us in awkward and uncomfortable situations. It’s best to leave it to the experts that operate in this area… companies should avoid using Māori staff as token gestures, for example only approaching them to perform the company karakia, waiata or pōwhiri, or engaging them after a situation that could have been avoided at the start.”

What firms can do to encourage and support Māori and engage with Te Ao Māori

The key building blocks for firms wanting to start the journey of being more inclusive and engaged with Te Ao Māori was for leadership to set the tone, but for the commitment and action to be imbedded through all levels of the organisation. 

“I’ve worked for many different organisations within the technical sphere. Some companies are real leaders in this space and empower their Māori employees. For it to truly be successful, it needs to be genuine and authentic” said Chantelle.

Part of that authenticity comes from being genuinely interested in engaging and learning more. The panellists praised the efforts of a person who submitted a question to the panel: though their business did not have any Māori staff members, they had put up bilingual signage in their building and had organised marae visits for their staff. 

Other organisations the panellists had experience with had incorporated mātauranga Māori and te reo Māori into their values, policies, job titles, and application forms and had arranged marae-based training for their senior managers.  These were all part of normalising and embracing te reo and mātauranga Māori in all parts of the organisation.

As a starting point for gaining insight into Te Ao Māori and building relationships, Troy suggested reaching out to your local marae, hapū or iwi. He acknowledged that this “can be quite daunting and scary, but if you don’t’ reach out to them, if you don’t have a cup of tea with them, you can’t have a kōrero.” Another option could be to engage a Māori consultancy, whether that be to arrange Marae visits, workshops for Te Tiriti, or a broader package to build knowledge and empathy with Te Ao Māori.

Regardless of whether you engage a consultancy or forge direct relationships at the marae, hapū or iwi level, it’s important to remember that Māori are not one, homogenous group; you must develop relationships in the area that your firm, or your project, is based in.

“For Māori we’re all about connections and linking in with one another…We are all different iwi and if you don’t understand the kaupapa before you start the work, then you really need to get down there on the ground and figure it out because it is so easy to offend. Definitely reach out and find a Māori consultancy that’s either in your area or closer to your region” advised Chantelle.

Firms that already have Māori staff should involve them in their Te Ao Māori journey, something Chantelle has experienced at Aurecon.

“Our Director and GM have included me in the firm’s Te Ao Māori journey. It’s a fantastic opportunity where I’ve had input, felt valued and influenced our mahi takiwā (working environment). Māori employees bring a depth of knowledge and understanding – an innovative, different way of thinking. We’ve always cared about our people and our environment.”

A further step for organisations is to foster Māori leadership through marae-based leadership training – an opportunity that Lincoln had taken up through his employer.

“At Fletcher Building we have a Māori leadership programme called Whakatapu. It’s a marae-based course where participants receive one-on-one coaching and further connect with Māori culture. You work to clarify your purpose, create development plans, and get an opportunity to propose rōpū (group) initiatives.”

“The programme took a holistic approach to wellbeing and its connection to mana. “Before the programme, I was quite reserved and would shy away from uncomfortable situations… After creating a personalised purpose statement, being the best person I can be for my family and community, and doing a honest reflection of my wellbeing and mana, I was able to see past my own pride and come out a better person and more confident worker.”

The leadership of Fletcher Building demonstrated their genuine commitment to the programme by coming to the marae to hear the proposals that Lincoln’s peer group had developed.

“I wouldn’t have ever imagined seeing the Fletcher CEO at a marae, but there he was with several other senior execs listening to our proposals. In my cohort alone, we were able to get sign off on all of our proposals, which included employing a cultural advisor, implementing Māori signage, providing a company intranet Māori matrix page, and creating a mentoring programme for the youth. This has continued since I undertook the programme since 2017.  We’re continuing to see the benefits.”

Fostering the next generation of Māori engineers

While leadership training can help the current cohort of Māori engineers, our panelists also shared their thoughts on what needed to happen to bring more Māori into the profession. Troy identified “a real missing link” for the engineering profession:

“If we look at the number of Māori enrolled in university, particularly in engineering schools, participation is very low. So, when we say we need to increase Māori in the profession, we really need to engage Māori at a younger age.”

“Our schooling system has a big part to play. We have mainstream schools and then we have Māori immersion schools – Kura Kaupapa. The current tertiary education systems are tailored to the mainstream schools. No one has addressed the need to provide culturally relevant STEM-specific education for these Māori immersion schools, or for Māori students in general. We need to provide a curriculum that considers Te Ao Māori and mātauranga no matter what the schooling.”

Māori currently working as engineers also have an important role to help the next generation according to Troy: “We need Māori role models to go into these Kura Kaupapa and mainstream schools and teach young Māori about engineering; to inspire them into the workforce.”

Warner encouraged a focus on trades training to encourage more Māori into engineering. But he pointed out there are specific challenges in this area because “for trades apprentices, and particularly for Māori, the completion rates are quite poor. And that raises some real challenges around… things like pastoral care and actually having people working in an environment that, particularly for their first job, is possibly not what they’re used to. Particularly if their home life is not conducive to supporting training and development.”

Warner urged firms taking on young Māori to be mindful of what they may have faced —and may still be facing — in their lives, whether they be graduates or trade apprentices: “There needs to be a full appreciation of the challenges that some of our young people come from, particularly if they come from disaffected social situations… and the challenges associated with that.”

While there is a long way to go, there is some progress being made

There’s still plenty of mahi to be done across the industry, there are several firms and individuals leading the way. Troy wrapped up his response to a question about the current competence of the construction industry in relation to mātauranga Māori by saying:

“The good news is we are becoming more competent and there are companies out there that are making a difference.”

As an industry, it’s important that initiatives to build cultural understanding and competence in Te Ao Māori are given emphasis because, as Warner put it “if we get Māori outcomes right, they’re good for everyone. They can be unifying in terms of bridging gaps and discussions between different parts of the community… Māori outcomes are essential and unifying in building great outcomes for the organisation and the community.”

He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.


[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/business-case-for-diversity-in-the-workplace/ and https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend

Note: The panelists acknowledge their identities as individual industry participants of Māori heritage and do not claim to speak on behalf of a wider collective or their respective organisations

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