Public infrastructure projects at risk of COVID-induced skilled labour shortage, report finds
Government investment in bridges, roads and railways is expected to double in coming years, but a new report has warned the spending blitz could be undermined by one of the worst skills shortages in decades.
Independent advisory group Infrastructure Australia believes project managers may struggle to recruit skilled workers for one in three industry jobs by 2023, the equivalent of 105,000 positions.
The group's first Infrastructure Market Capacity report predicts a shortage of trade workers from electricians, painters and joiners to university trained positions like senior engineers, geologists and architects.
At the peak of demand between now and 2025, Infrastructure Australia predicts a shortfall of 70,000 scientists and engineers, 19,000 project management professionals and 28,000 trades and labour workers.
Director of policy and research, Jonathan Cartledge, said the shortage could get worse with 40 per cent on the infrastructure workforce expected to retire in the next 15 years.
"Nearly half of project managers are 45 years or older and beneath the high-level occupation group, we see significant ageing in roles like building surveyors, crane operators, drivers and safety operators," Mr Cartledge said.
The skilled labour shortage in Australia has been an issue for many years, but industry experts say the pandemic has exacerbated the problem with disruptions to training and the sudden suspension of skilled migration due to border closures.
"We have a high level of international participation in the Australian construction sector and in particular some of the specialised skills like those around the railway industry and signalling, in particular," Mr Cartledge said.
There is no quick fix for the skills shortage by 2023 given it takes several years of university to train qualified engineers, geologists, scientists and architects.
Given the shortage, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is calling for an increase in skilled migration once the international border is open.
"We are seeing one of the most severe skills shortages in about two decades affecting the Australian economy," the Chamber's chief executive, Andrew McKellar, told the ABC.
"In the period before the pandemic struck, our skilled migration program was throttled back to about 120,000 visas a year in terms of permanent entry.
"We think it needs to go back up to a level, to at least 150,000 to up to 200,000. I am sure that the economy could absorb that."
The peak body for apprenticeship providers, the National Apprentice Employment Network, says skilled migration may provide a short-term solution but it's not in Australia's long-term interest.
"We really need to train our own and not think we can just turn on the migration tap every time we have a skilled labour shortage," director Dianne Dayhew said.
Federal government programs to boost the number of apprentices – like paying half their wages — have had success in recent years.
"It has supported about 270,00 new apprenticeships and that's the highest number of apprentices commencing for more than a decade, but of course we need to work on completion as only half have completed (their apprenticeship)," Ms Dayhew said.
Group Training Association of Victoria's executive director, Gary Workman, says a shortage of tradespeople has been an issue for many years but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
"The start and stop nature of the industry has really dented the confidence of employers so they have probably been reluctant to take on new staff as they're thinking 'one week we are open, one week we are closed," Mr Workman said.
"Employer confidence needs to be built up in the new year to make sure we continue attracting young people."