Finding infrastructure leaders in a frenetic market

The Australian infrastructure sector is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of demand and extremely limited supply. Most organisations simply can’t find the leaders they need, but good hiring results can still be accomplished, particularly for those with a pragmatic and resourceful approach, writes Grant Nichol.

Grant Nichol

Post-COVID, infrastructure spending in Australia has skyrocketed, with a total of $255 billion committed by state, territory, and federal governments through to the end of the 2025-2026 financial year.

On a per-capita basis, this equates to $9,842 being spent per person on development projects across the next three years – one of the highest in the world.

Australian federal government allocations to infrastructure have now increased 91 per cent since the 2019-2020 Budget.

Australia’s investment in infrastructure projects is driven by the need to support population growth, enhance urban and regional development, upgrade aging infrastructure, improve resilience to natural disasters, and prepare for future needs and advancements.

However, as the country bounced out of the setbacks associated with COVID, infrastructure spending also became a strong economic stimulus tool, as well as a political tool, to win favour with both voters and businesses. 

As a result, the federal government, individual states, and territories are all frenetically competing for the best executive talent to lead these projects. Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland have more resources and funding than the less populated states and territories.

Building Authorities that are overseeing works, and private construction companies who have won bids for work, are also competing for talent.

Considerable hyperinflation of salaries has become a feature that is showing no sign of abating. Roles that are particularly in demand now include executive project-lead (director) roles, and program heads. Adding to the already tight supply are clients’ often strong preference for appointees to relocate to the project’s city, town, or region.

The complexity and know-how required to successfully lead infrastructure/construction projects within a particular subsector can often require specialist experience, which also limits the candidate supply. For example, complex health and critical care infrastructure often requires specialist experience/knowledge in that sector.

Infrastructure Australia’s strategic 15-year rolling plan calls for a continued uplift in spending to cope with the country’s forecast population of 31.4 million people by 2036 – an increase of 23.7 per cent.

Another priority is natural disaster mitigation strategies: the average annual cost of natural disasters is projected to rise from $18.2 billion this year to $39.3 billion in 2050.

Even in this market, however, organisations that are resourceful, creative, and pragmatic in their approach can secure top-tier infrastructure leadership.

The following suggestions are useful for both government and private sector organisations when searching for senior executives in extremely tight and hyperinflated candidate markets. 

Understand the realities of the market
When undertaking a search in an extremely tight and competitive labour market, accept that macro-factors beyond your control will have some impact on the outcome, including the type of candidate/skills level you are able to secure, or the compensation needed to secure that candidate, or sometimes a trade-off between the two.

Become knowledgeable about how tough the search for a particular role is expected to be, by looking at a range of data. Request this intel from your executive search firm if you are working with one. The more knowledge you can attain the better. Insights around hiring rates, salary increases, and candidate expectations will also provide opportunities for mutual alignment and understanding when negotiating a package with your preferred candidate.   

Separate your ‘must haves’ from your ‘good to haves’
Create your ideal candidate profile: what skills they should have, their attributes, where they will be located, their occupational experience, and their cultural fit. Then, using your knowledge of the current hiring market, spend time scrutinising these criteria.

Develop an understanding of what is essential, what is a nice to have, and what can be jettisoned. What traits are you willing to negotiate or move on? What is the essence or the core of this role that will make this appointment successful – is relocation absolutely required, or would weekly FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) work?

This is not about getting someone who is not qualified for the role. This is about contextually defining the profile of an excellent candidate, and developing an understanding of what elements or features of the hire that are not quite so important. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.

Be creative and compelling in your proposition
Craft the opportunity in a way that is compelling to passive candidates, and be both bold and creative in your proposition. Elements that are particularly attractive to senior candidates in a tight market include succession pathways, workplace flexibility, competitive compensation packages, and cultural/brand alignment. Some strategic differentiation from competitor organizations can be important.

In a once-in-a-generation tough hiring market, there are only two outcomes at play: a hire, or no hire. Success takes organisational fortitude, maturity, ingenuity, and sometimes a willingness to compromise.

*Grant Nichol is Managing Partner, Melbourne, Australia with NGS Global.

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