The Australian construction industry employs over 1.2 million Australians and in 2017-18 generated over $247 billion of revenue, making it one of the main drivers of the Australian economy.
However, there is a new challenge on the horizon for the construction industry, particularly as our pipeline of infrastructure projects grow. Our industry is lacking the necessary skilled workers to meet the growing demands of our society.
In the last six months alone, there has been 155 new engineering construction projects recorded with a combined value of $60 billion, according to the latest Australian Construction Industry Forum Market Report. The current pipeline of infrastructure projects will only grow, especially as our population is projected to hit 30 million by 2029, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
The recent Federal Budget committed a massive $100 million spend on infrastructure over the next ten years, with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Governor Phillip Low encouraging the government to spend more on infrastructure to boost employment rates.
While theoretically, this strong pipeline of infrastructure work will help boost the economy and provide opportunities for more jobs, the reality is that our industry has a huge gap in the skills required to deliver these projects. If this is not addressed, we may not be able to complete the projects needed to accommodate our growing population, which will further exacerbate the current stresses on our infrastructure network.
The reasons for our skills shortage
Our industry is lacking in both blue- and white-collar workers. From experts in my own profession of quantity surveying, to engineers and also sub-contractors such as electricians and plumbers, we just don’t have enough of these skilled workers.
Australia’s aging population has led to an escalation in retirement rates in the construction sector. This is compounded by chronic under-investment and promotion in education and skills training to enter the industry. The number of apprentices and trainees undertaking vocational education has fallen in recent years. There is an increasingly smaller number of people who will be capable of filling certain skilled roles in the sector.
How can we address this problem?
The national vocational and educational training system has not kept up with the pace of the ever-changing workforce. The demand for blue collar jobs is there, but we need to make these jobs more attractive to the younger generation.
There should be adequate measures in place to assist and encourage employers to take on more apprentices while also placing extreme importance on completion rates for building trade apprenticeships. Industry leaders need to invest in the training and mentoring of young people, which will also future-proof their businesses.
Our industry needs to be encouraging skilled workers from overseas to join Australian firms. The 457-visa program plays a vital role in encouraging skilled workers from overseas to fill positions that are unable to be filled domestically. However, the program has become increasingly complicated for employers due to the amount of ‘red tape’ involved in the process. The program needs to remain uncapped and easier for employees to engage with, especially for construction projects where the work is on a large-scale and over a long-period of time.
There is a clear gap in the industry when it comes to female employment. According to a Masterbuilders’ report in 2019, women currently make up only 12 per cent of the industry’s total workforce and only 1 per cent of building trades. The industry is missing out on the skills and talents of half the population. There needs to be greater support and encouragement for programs that aim to increase female participation.
I encourage industry professionals to explore opportunities that promote female participation. This could be achieved through speaking to female high school students about potential careers in the construction / property industry, such as project management or engineering, guest lecturing to construction related university students and encouraging them to choose lesser known paths such as quantity surveying.
Further to this, construction technology has a large role to play in helping our industry deliver our immense pipeline of projects in the midst of our skills gap. We need to rethink our processes and methods and invest in research and development in artificial intelligence, drones, robotics and automation. This will allow us to build smarter and more efficiently.
The Australian construction industry relies heavily on the skills of its workforce. As our population rapidly grows, it is now more important than ever to invest in these measures that increase the skill base of the industry.
I am not completely doubtful that the Australian Construction Industry is doomed, but if our skills and development continue to stagnate then we will struggle to deliver vital infrastructure for our growing cities.