Traditionally, those wanting a career in building and construction throughout Australia started out by working alongside experienced builders and tradespeople during apprenticeships whilst attending trade school part-time.

For those who followed this path, stories of success abound. Andrew Downs, who started out doing an electrical apprenticeship and even doing post-graduate schooling today runs Sage Automation. The company, which he founded 11 years ago, is now the largest independently control building automated systems outfit in the country.

Scott Salsbury, who started a four-year apprenticeship as a carpenter when he was 17, runs a medium sized home building company specialising in the luxury market.

Today, by contrast, a plethora of courses allow trainees to learn from the comfort of their home computer. Those wanting to obtain a Certificate IV in Building and Construction, for example, can study entirely online through organisations such as the Open Training and Education Institute or Open Colleges – the latter boasting of there being ‘no classes to attend.’

Whilst Open Colleges encourages its students to undertake practical work and experience, neither course requires them to do so and neither has any prerequisites apart from minimum age requirements. Accordingly, students could conceivably graduate without ever having physically met with an instructor or set foot on site.

Courses at Open Colleges take between six months and two years to complete, depending on the amount of time students devote toward study each week, but shorter courses are also available elsewhere. Those simply wanting their white card can jump on the web sites of White Card Online or Blue Dog Training, fork out $39.95 and get their certification after completing two to three hours of online course modules.

Whilst online training has advantages, questions surrounding the capacity of these courses to equip students for real-world success must be asked. In a recent statement, Master Builders Association of Queensland training and licensing manager Adam Profke warned that a proliferation of ‘fast, cheap online courses’ was jeopardising both the quality of the built environment and the reputation and future of the industry. A damning report into online courses for white card training by the Australian Skills Quality Authority in 2013, meanwhile, found evidence of most RTOs assessing only knowledge rather than skills, courses being completed in less than an hour, some merely testing existing knowledge and not even providing any training at all, and RTOs which do provide face to face contact being undercut and forced out of the market by those that do not. On some occasions, assessments were not even completed by the person in question but rather by parents, bosses or office staff; one participant completed the course under the name of his dog.

According to Profke, online learning can encompass anything from reading text on a PDF through to interactive videos, pictures and activities, and the level of investment which RTOs need in order to start up operations in building courses can vary from between $5,000 up to several hundred thousand dollars depending on the veracity of training provided.

Apart from illustrating theoretical concepts in a more dynamic way and making training more accessible to those in remote areas, he says online tools when used in conjunction with in-person contact offer significant advantages and certainly have their place. Using virtual reality, for instance, students are able to ‘experience’ operating machinery in remote locations such as mine sites or ‘perform’ high risk work in an immersive virtual environment and receive feedback prior to doing so in a real one. This could be used to identify any students who suffer from claustrophobia and thus might not be suited to work in confined spaces, for example, without the student in question needing to be physically rescued on a real site.

Nevertheless, he said, training conducted entirely online presents a number of problems. Even for those who undertake an apprenticeship, not having face to face contact in a classroom setting robs students of opportunities to receive feedback and correction with regard to any sub-optimal habits they may have picked up from their employers. Those students also do not have the opportunity to ask questions and receive in-person responses, he says.

Issues such as the white card identity debacle, meanwhile, present employers with the problem of those who come onsite potentially not understanding basic safety concepts. Whilst apprentices are supposed to be given time off in order to undertake schooling, furthermore, there have been cases where employers have refused such time with regard to online study – leaving apprentices to study during evenings or on weekends and exposing employers to potential back pay claims for time off which should have been granted.

Finally, whilst in-person training is more expensive to conduct, every training provider is paid the same amount of money – a phenomenon which leaves those who go to the expense of conducting in-person training at a competitive disadvantage compared with those who do not.

“I wouldn’t suggest that they (students) do a course online, and it wouldn’t matter if it was construction or any other discipline,” Profke said, adding that studies had shown that completion rates of online learning in general were lower compared to those involving in-person contact.

“Certainly, there is a place for online learning blended with face to face classes. We believe face to face classes are the best. Not all face to face class time is good, but if you sit for a number of days in front of a trainer, you can ask questions and get some good learning outcomes out of that.”

Builders Collective of Australia chief executive officer Phil Dwyer says construction is a hands-on occupation and should be taught that way. He is aware of one case in which a property developer did an online-only course of just six weeks with no prerequisites so that he himself could act as the registered builder for his development projects.

“We don’t believe that (online courses) should exist,” Dwyer said. “There should be a mix. People must have practical experience. You can’t just suddenly be a builder. Apprenticeships are a mix of on the job training and also schooling – that’s where we need to focus and that’s what delivers the skill sets needed in order to be able to to rely on people to deliver a proper outcome which is successful and meets compliance.

“You can’t possibly be a builder out of a textbook.”

Profke and Dwyer’s comments come amid ongoing controversy surrounding Australia’s training system, which has included stories of students paying thousands of dollars for training which never eventuated and taxpayers forking out massive premiums to line the pockets of training providers with loans that most likely will never be paid.

In its annual report last year, ASQA noted that almost three quarters of all training providers failed to meet required standards regarding course quality and governance. Across all sectors, there were ongoing issues with regard to training being delivered over very short time frames and concerns about the quality of assessment and the skills of assessors, ASQA noted in its report.

Several online-only training providers were contacted for this story, but none responded.

Over the long term, Profke fears online-only training will lead to higher levels of defects and consumer loss, more injuries and accidents, greater pressure on the home warranty system and an overall loss in confidence and respect for the profession.

He says the industry needs to uphold an expectation that all builders possess levels of knowledge and skills which are sufficient to get the job done safely and properly.

“Consumers expect that a licensed builder regardless of what state they are in has a base level of knowledge and that their confidence in investing $300,000, $500,000 or $1 million dollars on a property (is justified),” he said.

“We have to uphold that expectation. That’s where we need to go. That’s what we need to focus on.”