The future of the construction sector in Australia is largely dependent upon the ability of the industry to train a sufficient quantity of new workers who are suitably qualified and possess the right skills in order to deliver successful outcomes in a modern workplace environment.

Indeed, the importance of this was underscored by the prevalence of training and apprenticeships as a critical area of priority within the policy submissions of fairly much every major industry body within the sector throughout the recent federal election campaign.

In recent times, however, concerns about the system have been growing. In a 2014 report commissioned by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, for example, University of Sydney Department of Political Economy honorary senior research fellow Phillip Toner warned that the apprenticeship system was in crisis and was suffering from a combination of cuts to TAFE funding, poor quality training and a growing push toward ‘short termism’ with an increasing number of very small firms operating within the sector.

In a report released last year, meanwhile, Master Builders Australia talked of the system suffering from administrative confusion with unclear governance structures and having been ‘captured’ by TAFE providers and registered training organisations (RTOs) for their own benefit. Warnings about declining apprenticeship numbers and insufficient numbers of new apprentices coming through the system to replace retiring workers have been getting louder.

To be sure, claims about apprenticeship numbers need to be put into perspective. At 23,900, the number of Australians commencing an apprenticeship in building trades over the 12 months to June last year was the second highest on record. Over the past 20 years, the number of building industry apprentices in training (up 73 per cent) has grown roughly in proportion to the size of the overall construction sector workforce, whilst the number of electrical industry apprentices has tripled.

That said, causes for concern are genuine. Over the past decade, roughly 45 per cent of those who have commenced building industry apprenticeships have failed to complete their training, data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research indicates. Apprenticeship completion numbers over the past five years have averaged around 12,000 – nowhere near enough to replace the 30,000-odd workers Master Builders reckons the industry loses to retirement each year let alone deliver upon the 29,500 extra tradespeople the federal government reckons the industry will need by 2019. That relatively impressive reading for commencements, as well, may not be as good as it first sounds: over the four years to June 2015, average annual commencement numbers (19,055) were down by almost 11 per cent compared with the previous four years.

Moreover, questions are being asked about the quality of training being delivered, especially in light of a recent proliferation in RTOs offering building courses. Throughout 2014/15, more than seven in 10 such providers failed to demonstrate conformance with the national standard relating to training quality assurance when subject to audit, the Australian Skills Quality Authority said in its most recent annual report. A similar proportion also failed to demonstrate compliance relating to governance standards. Courses which offer online only training in building and construction, too, are raising eyebrows, as are those which offer the Cert IV in Building in a matter of weeks or months.

What are the problems?

According to Australian Constructors Association executive director Lindsay Le Compte, there are a number of areas of challenge. He says more effective coordination by stakeholders across jurisdictions is required with regard to thinking about what the overall landscape will look like over the next five to 10 years so that industry may target new workers and shape the areas in which they will work.

He also says greater analysis is needed as to the types of skills that will be required. This is particularly important not only because of the lead time required for new tradespeople and professionals to be trained in response to projected need, but also because of the impact of technology on the changing nature of the industry and delivery mechanisms for both small and large projects.

In addition, Le Compte says there are questions about where apprentices will come from and where they will get their training opportunities amid an environment of increasing specialisation, financial challenges associated with apprentices commencing and completing their training at later ages  and a decline in the number of people following their parents into the building industry (and being trained by them). Meanwhile, in order to provide a diverse work environment and one which is more conducive to women working on site, he says there needs to be greater emphasis on workplace culture throughout the training process.

Others agree that there are issues of concern. In its policy platform for the most recent federal election, for example, the Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors Association (AMCA) argued there were many challenges in regard to training and skills development within the sector. These include a reduction in offerings of some cost prohibitive courses associated with the move to contestable models of VET funding, greater consistency being needed in state-based requirements for trade recognition and continued challenges surrounding the job readiness of trainees and apprentices.

Whilst a number of parties were doing good work individually, AMCA executive director Sumit Oberoi said efforts on the part of TAFEs, employers and industry associations to engage with each other and align the skills needed going forward with the training that is indeed being provided have not been adequate.

“We’ve got some really good TAFE organisations but industry engagement is not necessary front and centre to what they are doing,” Oberoi said. “On the other side of the scale, you have got every single organisation that operates in the building and construction industry – whether employers or unions- pretty much all have their own training setup.

“There’s a balance between (defining) what is the role of a TAFE, what is the role of your employer and what does the industry association provide. No one can solve this problem in isolation; there has got to be a tri-part partnership.”

Whilst stressing he could speak of the NSW situation only, meanwhile, Sydney-based building consultant and building studies teacher Brett Bates says one area of challenge with regard to traditional building trades revolved around outdated perceptions. Whereas bricklayers, for example, are in short supply and earning upwards of $2 per brick in and around the Sydney area, there was little in the way of apparent demand on the part of trainees to take up bricklaying licenses – a phenomenon he puts down to a ‘cult’ of the ‘chippie’ as being seen as the only real pathway to being a good builder.

As for the MBA’s complaint regarding ‘capture’ of the system by TAFEs and RTOs, he says TAFEs generally provide good quality teaching but had largely been ‘decimated’ by the government opening up the training market to private RTOs, which had a financial incentive to process as many students as possible irrespective of their level of competency.

“I would say no. I do not think we are producing suitably qualified and highly skilled trades contractors or builders for our future needs,” Bates said, asked about whether or not we are producing a sufficient quality of skilled workers in order to deliver the buildings and infrastructure which Australia needs going forward.

“In fact, I think we are moving backwards (in terms of skills and knowledge) at an alarming rate.”

Finally, employers in the field talk of a number of challenges. Speaking of the home building sector in particular, Brian Marklew, director of Carrum (south-east Melbourne) based home building company Marklew Homes, says a critical area of difficulty revolves around the division of the home building industry into specialised fields and the emphasis upon cost, which he says takes away from the traditional way in which many within the home building sector are traditionally trained.

In terms how the system is performing in terms of turning out workers who are equipped for the job in question, Marklew says those completing apprenticeships generally have good technical skills but may lack awareness about some of the legal and commercial aspects of setting up and running their own businesses and may thus find themselves in difficulty from a contractual perspective on some occasions in an increasingly litigious society.

Moreover, with apprentices being paid whilst they receive training as opposed to paying to go to university, Marklew says there could be a temptation for those undertaking training not to place adequate and appropriate levels of value on the training they receive. He says younger generations have different expectations compared with many of the older builders and tradespeople they replace, and that a critical challenge is to look at how we instill some of the values and expectations of older builders into the next generation coming through.

Australia has many challenges with regard to bringing up the next generation of those who will deliver the buildings and infrastructure of tomorrow.

With successful strategies in a number of areas, it seems, we will be able to go a long way in terms of meeting these challenges.