Around Australia, concern is growing about a long-term shortage of skilled construction tradespeople amid fears not enough apprentices are being trained to replace retiring workers and meet growth in demand for new labour.

A quick look at the data seems to bear these fears out. Over the five years from December 2014 to November 2019, the Department of Employment expects the nation to need an extra 47,800 building tradespeople to take overall numbers from 365,900 to 413,600.

Reliable data on the age profile of the sector’s workforce is difficult to come by, but ABS figures from 2010 indicated that roughly 14 per cent of all current tradespeople are aged 55 or over, which would indicate that roughly 51,000 of the 365,900 currently employed in construction trades would be aged over 55. Assuming between one-third and half of these retire over the next five years, the nation will need an extra 17,000 to 26,000 new apprentices or thereabouts simply to replace those who retire.

This means in order to meet projected new demand and replace those who retire, Australia would need some 67,000 to 76,000 new trainees completing their apprenticeship, or 13,000 to 15,000 per year. That’s just to meet new demand and replace retiring workers – it does not take into account the need to replace those who move into management roles or otherwise leave the building trades to pursue alternative options. Given that over the last five years, only 61,600 (or an average of 12,325 per year) completed their apprenticeships, there does appear to be a shortfall. With the Department saying a number of construction trades are already in shortage (such as bricklaying, stonemasonry, roof tiling, wall and floor tiling, plumbing and cabinet making,) these numbers are concerning.

What’s more, those annual apprenticeship completion numbers – though above the 8,000 or so that completed their training in 2003 – are well down on the 30,000 completions witnessed per annum during the early 1990s.

Potential consequences are not difficult to understand. As well as pushing up wages and trade prices – adding to housing affordability woes and the cost of building necessary infrastructure – a shortage of locally trained skilled workers could lead to greater reliance upon foreign labour as well as compromises within the built environment due to a shortage of people who possess the knowledge, skill and expertise to perform critical tasks properly and safely.

Though opinions regarding causes and solutions vary, most commentators agree on the need to both encourage more people into training (and employers to offer training) and boost apprenticeship completion rates, which currently stand at around 50 per cent.

Richard Hayes, director of the Manufacturing, Engineering and Electrotechnology Faculty of TAFE NSW, says the problem has a number of causes. As the nation seeks to develop a ‘smarter’ economy, more young people are being encouraged to go to university rather than enter trades, he says. Meanwhile, the removal of quotas for universities has encouraged more people to go through that system rather than TAFE, while the raising of the school leaving age to 17 in several states has seen the age at which people can qualify and start earning decent money through a trade increase.

construction trade

Hayes says negative perceptions about trades are misplaced, and that indeed, trades offer many opportunities for a rewarding career.

“The perception is that every parent wants their child coming through high school to go on and get a degree and be successful,” he said. “But I think success can be measured in different ways and does not always have to be measured through a degree. More and more, we are seeing that young people coming into trades are going on to successful careers. That doesn’t have to be just banging nails in, they go on to management of building companies and contractors, and will manage large organisations and lead large teams of people.

“That can be very rewarding for them personally, but also financially as well.”

However, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union National Secretary Dave Noonan says the problem is not one of attracting people into apprenticeships but rather a lack of apprenticeships on offer and issues with high rates of non-completion of apprenticeship training. Noonan says a less obvious part of the completion side of the problem revolves around third and fourth-year apprentices being poached by other employers offering to pay them trade rates even though they have not completed their apprenticeship. He says one strategy which the union has advocated to prevent this from happening revolves around a requirement to be licensed or registered in order to practice a trade.

“There seems to be a misconception that young people are not attracted to apprenticeships,” he said. “This is incorrect. Demand to take up an apprenticeship far exceeds the number of apprenticeships on offer.”

Though Noonan does not support the notion of a looming skills crisis, he suggests there could be cyclical and regionally based shortages of bricklayers and carpenters in some areas, while the aging nature of the workforce will see the possibility of a shortage of plant operators and crane drivers.

Along with licensing and registration, Noonan would like to see stronger procurement policies requiring a proportion of people undergoing training on government-funded projects.

Hayes, meanwhile, would like to see a reconsideration of the increase in school leaving age (at least as far as allowing people to move into trades training is concerned) along with opportunities for young people to experience a given trade for a brief period prior to signing up to an apprenticeship commitment. This move, he says, would help avoid a situation in which young Australians commence training and then find they are either not suited to trades or better suited to a different trade.

We may not be facing a crisis, but Australia does need more people coming through and completing trade based apprenticeships.

That may mean promoting greater awareness of opportunities available through trades, encouraging the creation of more apprenticeship opportunities and supporting and encouraging more apprentices to complete their training.