Helping disadvantaged youth across Australia to get onto the path of learning building trades and pursuing promising careers in construction and other areas involves a number of challenges but is thoroughly worthwhile according to the head of a program which works with major building companies and employs thousands of boys on building sites within a number of states across the country.

BoysTown general manager of employment, education and training John Perry said the idea behind the youth services organisation’s enterprise program was not just to help them acquire technical skills and give them a start in a promising career but also to develop broader skills they would use across wider areas of their life.

The program sees at-risk boys work side by side with licensed tradespeople on housing, commercial and civil construction sites, as well as in other work environments in other fields, and learn skills in areas such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical work.

Asked about the challenges in working with kids on the program – many of whom have backgrounds which include alcohol or substance abuse, lack of stable accommodation or disengagement with school and low self-esteem – Perry says some participants struggle with literacy and numeracy while others take time to develop the habits necessary to succeed in a work environment.

He says the first issue is dealt with by assessing abilities when kids start on the program and providing remedial tuition where necessary. Better personal management skills, meanwhile, generally develop over time, with different participants taking varying time periods to adjust to their new environment and reality.

John Perry

John Perry

“We work a lot on life skills and lifestyle because you can’t be up until midnight or one o’clock playing computer games and then believe you are going to be on site and fully functioning at seven o’clock in the morning” Perry said, adding that with its labour intensive nature, the building industry can be a good field for those who struggle early in life to get a chance. “One of the things with young people – many of the kids we work with don’t understand that they are committing to a 38-hour week and that their reliability is one of the best things they can give their employer.”

He noted that the program helps young men learn to organise not just their lives but their lifestyles to meet the demands of steady, daily work.

“That’s a key area because the realisation of work doesn’t normally dawn until the first morning they are starting work,” he said.

Since its commencement in 1998, BoysTown’s enterprise program has gained widespread support from government and commercial clients. Former Lend Lease subsidiary Abigroup, for example, used around 300 program participants during the building of Brisbane’s second Gateway Bridge. Brookfield Multiplex, meanwhile, used indigenous labour provided through the program as part of its contract workforce on the 1 William Street project in Brisbane. Lend Lease itself used 14 participants on its Yarrabilba housing project south of Brisbane.

State governments have also been keen, and project participants have built hundreds of kilometres of timber fencing in Queensland and worked on massive tree plantings in Western Sydney.

Perry says employers are particularly enthusiastic about the program at the moment amid fears of a looming shortage of skilled labour as building activity picks up.

He adds that a significant number of participants end up becoming part of the workforce of the companies they work alongside, and is encouraging firms to talk to BoysTown up to a year prior to their anticipated need for workers so the organisation can undertake the appropriate preparatory work to have the right kids ready when needed.

“I’ve been around for 35 years and I’ve seen it coming for a long, long time” Perry noted, referring to the need for more workers as building conditions turn up. “Suddenly, there is an upswing, and because there is a shortage of skills, the price of that skill starts to spiral up.”

“They (companies involved) realise that sometime in the future they are going to need an expanded workforce, so they are investing the time and effort and the intelligence in something that’s going to be of benefit to their subcontract workforce in the future.”