Industry involvement in NZDE course


Education/industry collaboration benefits all parties involved, so Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) has actively engaged with local employers while delivering the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering (NZDE) Civil programme. For Paul Duffy, a member of the Cadet Steering Group at Downer, this provided an opportunity to contribute to the programme and also trial a different method of delivering academic learning for his cadets.

Developing a new course

With high demand from industry for NZDE graduates, NMIT was keen to offer the NZDE in Civil Engineering.  A new Applied Technology facility was built in 2013, allowing NMIT to offer the NZDE Civil programme for the first time. (Local students previously had to complete the diploma through a combination of correspondence study and travel to other centres.)

In preparing to deliver the programme, NMIT consulted widely with local engineering employers who enthusiastically supported it being established in Nelson. This led to the Civil Engineering Advisory Group, which now meets three times each year, being set up in August 2014. These meetings have two purposes: for NMIT to advise industry representatives about changes in educational trends; and for NMIT to receive feedback on the development and operation of the Civil Engineering diploma – ensuring content is relevant to actual industry practices so that future graduates are the employees that the industry wants.

Civil Engineering Coordinator and Tutor Debbie Hogan values this interaction between NMIT and industry, “I know the students will ultimately benefit during their studies, work placements and once they graduate.”

Summer internships                                                                               

Internships give students valuable work experience to complement their study. Following an Advisory Group meeting in late 2014, Downer’s internship programme, which was previously only aimed at university students, was extended to include two NMIT students who worked at the Downer sites in Nelson over the summer break.  

Downer offers full-time employment to promising interns, and managers look for people with good communication skills and the potential to successfully lead teams of people. Paul notes that when the interns gave their presentations about their experiences, he was impressed that the NZDE interns spoke more than the rest of the group about their experiences in dealing with people and what they had learnt from them.

Following the success of this initiative, Downer now plans to offer internships to 10 to 15 NZDE students for the coming summer. Downer’s Senior Learning Adviser Lisa Stafford says they will gauge interest at student careers events rather than actively promoting the scheme, with Paul or other senior managers conducting mini-interviews on the spot with any particularly promising students.

In early 2015, Debbie introduced a ‘Work for a week in industry’ initiative. NMIT students visited civil engineering employers in Nelson for a week, to get an understanding of how industry work applies to the theory they learn in the classroom. Five students visited Downer and rotated through five different departments – Asphalt and Sealing, Water, Reticulation, Construction and Quarrying – over the week. In return, the students had to give a short presentation to the Nelson Downer staff on what they had learnt during their week, and make recommendations on any improvements they identified.

Downer was enthusiastic about collaborating with NMIT and contributing to the course work through encouraging communications training, where they advised students on the skills they need to work successfully as part of a team as well as lead construction crews. They also discussed the concept of zero harm and the importance of health and safety regulations on site. Downer has issued an open invitation for NMIT to bring students to work at their Nelson sites.

Road trip to engineering sites

To give students more exposure to civil engineering sites, Downer and NMIT have organised a two-day road trip from Nelson to Christchurch this July for the second-year students. They will travel to various Downer sites in Nelson, Blenheim and Kaikoura, then on to Christchurch where site managers will show them around.  Lisa notes that some of these site managers are ex-cadets so can give useful insight into how they coped with study and work. Downer will use the trip as another opportunity to identify top students, with the possibility of inviting them to do an internship and the consequent possibility of a full time job. If the trip is successful, NMIT and Downer hope to repeat it next year.

Trialling a different type of study for cadets

The relationship with NMIT provided an opportunity for Downer to see how well such close collaboration with a tertiary institution prepares cadets for the future. It included trialling a different type of study, as traditionally Downer cadets study through block courses. Paul says that the potential for NZDE students to drop out is problematic for tertiary institutions and employers. “Often when cadets drop out or only achieve mediocre results, it’s because they have focused mainly on their work rather than study. Conversely, those who do well might come out with a good knowledge of the academic aspects but are less prepared for the actual work they’ll be doing.”

The pilot project in Nelson involves cadets in concentrating on their academic studies in the first two years. Downer revamped its cadetship scheme in 2013 and cadets now work through formal rotations in different areas of civil engineering. The Nelson cadets will work through these rotations following two years of study. Lisa says that cadets get a broad experience of civil engineering and are supported to work towards the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering Practice (NZDEP). “At the end, when providing evidence for the NZDEP, they just sail through.”
Read about the 2013 changes to Downer cadetship scheme

Continuing to collaborate

Downer is currently discussing the availability of awards and prizes for NZDE students with NMIT, and the possibility of donating a Downer prize for the Year 2 design project with the best constructional merit.

Collaboration is proving mutually beneficial. With students learning the knowledge and skills required by local employers, NMIT can produce ‘fit for business’ graduates who have good chances of employment in the region. Maintaining a working relationship with the local polytechnic gives employers an opportunity to recruit staff.  “We are a business,” Paul points out, “so our investment of time and effort in working with a polytech needs to add some value for us to make it worthwhile.”

In summing up the initiative, he comments “It’s not rocket science. The rest of the world is doing this sort of tertiary/industry collaboration. It’s not difficult; it just needs that mutual commitment.”

Our thanks to Paul, Debbie and Lisa for their time and advice. If you have any questions, get in touch with us at

June 2015