Chorus is aiming to recruit another 250 technicians and support staff by the end of the year, in partnership with the telco’s service companies across the country.
Stemmed by increased demand across its copper and fibre business, the new headcount will join the 2,000 staff already added to the workforce since 2011.
The pledge comes as the company apologises to customers who have been waiting too long for faults on its copper network to be repaired, insisting that improvement in this area remains an “immediate priority”.
During winter, when volumes of faults increase due to the weather, Chorus says it will keep average restoration times under 48 hours.
“A number of factors mean the average time to fix a fault has now increased to more than 60 hours, with some customers waiting considerably longer,” says Ed Beattie, General Manager Infrastructure, Chorus.
“We have had an unfortunate set of circumstances, including very wet weather and several major cable cuts by third parties, which has meant we’ve been playing catch up for the last couple of weeks.
“Taking more than a day or two to fix faults is clearly unacceptable, both to ourselves and our customers. It’s not good enough and I apologise to customers who are frustrated waiting for a fix.
“When you’re short of people for all the work you need to do, it’s a constant balancing act, and we should have responded to longer fault timeframes sooner.
“We know we need to find enough technicians to handle these sorts of unusual events, and we are continually looking to add more skilled techs to the workforce.”
Over the past week, Beattie says Chorus has reprioritised some of its technicians from other work and other locations, to fixing copper faults in Auckland, where the majority of the long lead times are to be found.
Since making a range of interventions to improve performance in this area, Beattie says the backlog of faults have halved, with the company set to publish regular updates on its fault restoration performance until it is back within business as usual performance levels.
Prior to the spate of wet weather and major cable cuts, Beattie insists Chorus’ copper network reliability has been “consistently good”, with the overall volume of faults declining steadily over the last six years.
In addition, the company has also invested in improving its copper infrastructure, and high speed VDSL broadband is now available to around four out of every five lines.
“The most fundamental challenge remains hiring enough people throughout the country to meet the demands of running an existing copper network, building a new fibre network and installing thousands of new fibre connections every month,” Beattie adds.
“The wider context is that across Chorus and our service company partners, we had about 1,800 technicians working on the network in 2011, and today we have about 3,700.”
Going forward, Beattie says Chorus still needs “hundreds more” to be able to meet all of the demands in acceptable timeframes.
“Not the least of which is doing more than 600 fibre installations every day - a huge level of demand,” he adds.
“At the same time, we are competing with the Christchurch rebuild, the Auckland housing demands and the NBN build in Australia for skilled technicians, and like all of those we are finding the potential labour pool to be too small to meet all of our needs.”
Beattie says Chorus has “scoured New Zealand” for potential technicians, and also brought in technicians from around the world to help meet the demand, “but it’s still not enough”.
“It’s not a matter of budgets or willingness, we simply need more people and the “help wanted” sign is well and truly out,” he admits.
“We have left no stone unturned, including working with WINZ, running job fairs, hiring technicians from overseas, working with other companies who may no longer need as many technician staff, and working with Government to make hiring overseas workers with relevant skills easier.
“We run extensive training programmes, as do our service company partners, and we are adding around 25 new technicians to our field force every week.”
But for Beattie, the need to add technicians to the workforce must be balanced with ensuring they have the right skills to ensure high quality of workmanship, including right customer service capabilities.
“We know this is a challenge across many sectors, and we remained focused on significantly improving performance as we find and train up ever increasing numbers of technicians,” Beattie adds.