The state of Australia’s construction industry occupies the daily media more often than it should, for the wrong reasons.
Claims by a plethora of interest groups as to what to do about it, are mostly narrow and self-focused. There is however a consensus that the industry has a huge applied skill gap in the fundamentals of design management, making and assuring today’s buildings.
There is less consensus on what the jobs in a modern construction industry will be and who is best to prepare the next generation of construction industry practitioners and professionals for them. The battles lines between universities and technical colleges divert scarce resources and the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration. A situation exacerbated by the silos within those institutions that battle for supremacy. In most universities engineering and architecture dominant schools hold sway while construction and industrial design tend to find themselves as the lesser invested disciplines. And then there is the battle between researchers and teaching academics over the institution’s priorities to fund programs or research.
These battle lines become more destructive when they fail to drive cross discipline engagement with other specialities such as data science, computing, law, business and humanities such as ethics. Even in the engineering schools, the battle lines are indelibly drawn between materials sciences, fire engineering, mechanical, civil, structural, electrical and electronics. Whenever there is a reported industry failure, it is inevitable that one or more will raise their flag to claim, if they had more influence the problems would be avoided. None of these proponents appreciate what single point of design output or accountability means. They miss the need to join up all construction’s inputs to make sense. Compliant, trustworthy and resilient is a mutual obligation from an industry that seems more focused on accountability aversion.
Silos are a circuitous club
These silo effects are reinforced by industry sub-groups who currently hold the accreditation keys to formal qualifications. These groups embed fragmented industry dispositions that mostly stay with graduates for their entire career. They miss-inform policy makers and this underpins narrowly based taxpayer and industry funded research and public policy. They therefore fail to join-up the necessary dots.
Another example is the battle lines between the interests of timber, steel, concrete and other exciting construction composites and material alternates. Public advocacy for most of these inputs shows how much potentially collaborative effort is wasted. And this is before the battle lines between modular construction and more widely engaging resolution of how all of construction’s inputs could be joined up effectively.
Its no wonder that the announced remedies by Australia’s multi-jurisdiction regulatory agencies become so misguided in an increasing patchwork of fixes. None of these proponents look to themselves to identify their part in the systemic failure of construction today. They fail to acknowledge that their interests have help dumb down a system which produces practitioners who lack the necessary skills. They spend more time looking at how to ring-fence their individual accountabilities.
Related to this, no one so far has called for a complete review of how every dollar is spent on insuring construction from start to finish and beyond into life cycle. They should. This information is enough to justify an inquiry on its own as it would show how much this all costing and why the interests of the industry’s customers are relegated to well down the list. A banking industry like exposure of who is benefiting and how the systemic failure of the whole system is accommodated would be ugly.
Momentum towards a national skilling strategy would be good for construction
Its unsurprising that governments are now standing back and looking to reposition the nation’s future skilling and capability building. There is a strong correlation between all of the issues discussed so far. The bell is starting to toll loudly that the industry’s inputs on every front could be unified and far better directed, as opposed to accommodating the escape hatches for sub-standard inputs at the design, delivery and operational life cycle of today’s buildings and infrastructure. The table presented at the start of this article perhaps tells more of the picture than its authors intended.
There is a huge imbalance between the numbers qualifying in Skill Level 1 (Bachelors Degrees) and Skills Levels 2 (Advanced Diploma and Diploma) and 3 (Certificate IV).
Both sides of politics have recently stated their commitment to a profound repositioning of the nation’s training sector. The anomaly of fee help between universities and the TAFE sector looks to be a centrepiece. This has enabled cost shifting from the states to the commonwealth whereby the total TAFE sector outlays had fallen to $7 billion in 2018, down from $9 billion in 2014. As a result, universities have absorbed a large number of would be TAFE students because they attract fee help while lower level training courses do not. And there is evidence that these funds are so attractive that they permit lowering of entry standards for both domestic and foreign students. This situation is starkly obvious in the construction industry. And it is probable that this massive deficit in technically skilled industry participants has contributed to the increasing number of non-compliant and or defective buildings.
This situation has many implications. The most serious is a lack of funding and desire to modernise out of date teaching content and delivery. One senior academic of a Built Environment School inferred, ‘if we changed the academic teaching content, we would dissuade over seas students to come here, as they rely on passing on the same crib notes to the next group of students each year.’ And a major engineering employer commented that the quality of graduates seems to be declining each year. The employer asked some of the most recent recruits why this may be so. Their answer was unsurprising, ‘the entry levels are being dumbed down, many students struggle with english, and we end up in assignment groups where we do most of the work. Many students are here for the academic credential not high achievement.’
Competing with the need to invest in modernising teaching content and delivery is the priority given by universities to research. Published papers and citations are the beat to which universities march. Any future national skilling strategy must look to recalibrate these ancient measures. They tend to indulge a cohort of life-long researchers who get by if they have a record in successfully prosecuting what’s on offer in the publicly funded research grant schemes. While there are some excellent researchers doing important work, there is a rump who survive on the ordinary with little if any impact correlation. These researchers also skew the potential of new researchers away from investigating new insights into modern construction practice.
Preparing future ready constructors will not come from business as usual
There is a growing level of anticipation amongst the TAFE communities that their stocks are soon to be lifted. Again industry interest groups will be quick to call for backfilling of traditional trade skills and management practices, that have their legacy in the second and third industrial revolution, not the fourth. The global construction industry is now 20-years into this new era. The developed world is struggling with the possible transformations that will materialise for enterprise, the workforce and educators. The emerging economies once had a disadvantage in their immature capabilities in traditional construction skills and practice. The unfolding modern construction world is less sentimental about those capabilities as they embrace new manufacturing and digitally enabled processes. The UK government is providing national leadership in modernising its construction (MMC) industry. This progress follows the earlier Farmer report – Modernise of Die.
Farmer described the issues constraining the modernisation of the UK construction labour market and a set out a blueprint for actions that could be deployed to turn this around. There is much in both the Farmer Report and the UK MMC Strategy for the Australian industry. These emphasise that business as usual is unsustainable.
Modernising the Australian construction education and capability platform will require a co-ordinated national strategy. This will require a national engagement unlike the lack of interest shown in signing the Skilling Australia Fund and the adhoc attendance of responsible state ministers who have yet to realise the challenges needing to be faced. Government, industry and educators have yet to envision the rapidly changing construction landscape. There is a lack of recognition that every month thousands of construction jobs are going off-shore as smarter, modern, innovative and more competitive manufacturers are outperforming old practice.
Leadership opportunities abound for the nimbler states who are minded to lead the way in fostering ‘new collar’ skills and the workforce that enables a modern construction industry. They will be the states who see the opportunity in redefining the much-reported state of construction in Australia today by adopting strategies that position them as the ‘States of Construction’. And there will be opportunities for first-mover universities and TAFEs to establish new integrated, life-long education platforms that become the accelerated pathways to modern construction careers.