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R&D and manufacturing industry overview

Peter Nicholls

It’s one to think of an innovative product idea, and quite another to turn that idea into a reality. That’s what makes this a talented industry of doers.

We all know someone who is handy with just about everything, and businesses are no different to people – we all need someone to call on who can make, fix or test things! And that’s where the talented people of the R&D and manufacturing sector come in. 

If you’re looking for a role where you can apply your education and skills to projects and products that help drive growth and improve the lives of others, then this is a great industry to build your career in. As a research and development (R&D) professional, you’ll be tasked with the innovation, introduction, and improvement of various products and processes: Manufacturing accounted for 42% of New Zealand’s business expenditure on research and development (BERD) in 2016 and has remained high, so there are plenty of opportunities to pitch new ideas and see them through the manufacturing process. As a manufacturing professional, you’ll oversee the processes that bring new products to market and also eliminate any inefficiencies involved in their production. 

Graduate opportunities in R&D and manufacturing can be found across a broad range of industries, including telecoms, consumer goods, energy, health, education and pharmaceuticals. However, New Zealand’s manufacturing industry focuses primarily on the production of low and medium-low technology goods, such as food and beverage products, metal products, textiles, plastics, paper, lumber and building materials.

Roles in this sector cover research, product design and development, management, and commercial responsibilities. Many graduates are attracted to the sector by the opportunities for travel and the satisfaction that comes from seeing their designs turned into finished products. 

Manufacturing jobs are centred around Auckland, which accounts for over one-third of both firms and employment, with significant employment in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty region, the Marlborough region, and the Hawke’s Bay region. 

At $63,228, the average salary for manufacturing professionals is 15% higher than the national average across all industries ($54,749). However, this is partially due to the fact that employees in the manufacturing sector work more hours per week (39.4) than the national average (33.1). 

Job market outlook

R&D and manufacturing is a significant industry in New Zealand, having contributed 12 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017, with the largest proportion of that sum (31 percent) coming from firms in the food and beverages space. The manufacturing industry currently employs around 241,000 people.  

It’s worth noting that, in line with international trends, New Zealand’s manufacturing sector has declined in recent years due to the enduring impacts of the global financial crisis and the increasing reliance of global corporations on the cheaper manufacturing services available in Asia and Central America. Despite this, the number of graduates working in manufacturing has increased steadily since 2011, with approximately 14 per cent of the industry’s employees possessing a bachelor degree or higher.  

How to get hired

Recruiters are looking for teamwork-oriented graduates who can provide technical proficiency along with problem-solving, organisation, communication and project management skills to the company. Generally, R&D and manufacturing hires have a background in science, engineering, or mathematics. Similarly, manufacturing hires tend to have a background in engineering, design, or hard sciences (such as chemistry or physics). Companies that hire graduates in these industries will look favourably on candidates with computer-aided design (CAD) skills, a strong grasp of mechanical concepts, and the ability to think creatively. 

Key skills you’ll need

Attention to detail

In this industry, the finer details can save lives or make the difference between a product’s success or failure – so attention to these finer details is crucial. 


Successful graduates possess the drive required to see a project through from beginning to end, often against the odds. That’s precisely how many of the best products get from the drawing board to consumers. Engineering a new product or method of testing while at university, or even in your spare time, can set you apart from your peers and show that you’ve got what it takes.

Project management

It’s important to gain experience managing a project from start to finish, or demonstrate a natural aptitude for doing so. It’s also crucial to get your head around different planning tools and methodologies, so you know the best way to track your progress. Most products and projects in development will be made up of many parts, requiring scheduling and foresight, as well as the ability to forecast any bottlenecks. Often, the best problem-solving abilities are learned when things go wrong: so, remember, every experience has something to teach you!