by Claire Parry, Managing Director, Infrastructure Skills Advisory

Governments across the world are looking for strategies for fast economic recovery following world-changing events, such as the current pandemic. Part of their solution is to leverage their own investments, by fast-tracking infrastructure projects to create new jobs and business opportunities, particularly with existing skills shortages in the construction sector. If poorly implemented, however, rather than providing a sustainable economic solution with long-term business and employment opportunities, it may simply be a short-term fix.

Infrastructure delivery involves high-risk environments demanding the highest safety standards, and often complex skills and competencies.

It is not feasible to move people from COVID-impacted industries such as retail, hospitality and tourism, directly into infrastructure jobs, many of which require very different technical skill sets, qualifications and experience.

The construction sector has long experienced skills shortages and gaps in key trade, technical and professional occupations across civil, commercial and domestic sub-sectors.

Its workforce is aging, and new technologies require new and different skills. There are insufficient numbers of young people entering the industry to meet existing demand.

The current infrastructure boom, together with the fast-tracking of projects, will further exacerbate these shortages and gaps.

Government is also supporting the domestic construction market through low interest rates, grants and subsidies, which decreases the availability of skilled or semi-skilled workers to transfer from other construction sectors.

The industry is also heavily supported by ‘imported talent’. Skills shortages and gaps may further increase if migration into Australia continues to be restricted.

Programs and incentives that could help

Developing economic stimulus strategies through infrastructure delivery without specific programs and incentives to support new entrants, whether from other industries or from underrepresented groups, will fail to deliver anticipated outcomes.

Opportunities exist for rapid employment and the longer-term development of highly skilled ‘homegrown’ future talent if appropriate strategies and support mechanisms are provided.

Private sector incentives and government procurement mechanisms will help the government purchase wider economic benefits alongside traditional goods, works and services.

Governments around the world have increasingly used policy and procurement mechanisms to achieve economic and social benefits through spending. Infrastructure delivery is thus linked to wider government objectives, such as employment for underrepresented groups and the retention and growth of regional populations. This approach could be further leveraged to drive opportunities for those most impacted by COVID-19.

Strategies should include robust but realistic contractual obligations that promote business capability while delivering socio-economic outcomes. The best examples are where government and industry have worked together to identify and deliver the right strategy.

When the current infrastructure boom ends, an oversupply of workers may result in unemployment rising. However, construction offers its workforces opportunities to develop highly transferable technical skills that increase employability, either within the operations and maintenance of infrastructure assets or in other industries.

A ‘whole of government’ approach

Transport for NSW (TfNSW) established a Jobs, Skills and Industry Participation Advisory Group, and an Aboriginal Working Group for the Regional Rail Project, based in Dubbo.

Its key objectives are to increase employment and business opportunities, workforce diversity and regional skills. Group members include NSW and Australian Government agencies, which assist TfNSW and its contractor partners to achieve contractual obligations for jobs, skills and industry participation.

This ‘whole of government’ approach brings together agencies and delivery providers that are directly responsible for the funding and delivery of employment and skills programs, with the contractors that will provide the jobs.

Project delivery, and the operation and maintenance of assets require a range of skills in both construction and non-construction roles. Where local supply does not meet demand, training programs and other interventions are needed.

These may range from pre-employment programs for new entrant construction operatives to upskilling programs for those transferring from other industries. Ongoing collaboration is required across government, industry and educational institutions to establish employment and skills programs.

Planning needs to be for the long term

There also needs to be investment in programs that will increase capacity in the longer term. Local school programs, supporting STEM subjects, and university partnerships that increase knowledge transfer, or provide cadetships and graduate opportunities, will contribute to future skills supply.

Victoria’s Big Build Graduate Program provides placements across high-profile projects, including the Level Crossing Removal project. Balit Barring provides Aboriginal pathways to the graduate program.

‘Training for the Future’ is the government skills and industry capability development initiative for rail and infrastructure, which offers people from marginalised backgrounds, including refugees and asylum seekers, skills and qualifications for employment in the Victorian rail industry.

New entrant pathways and attraction strategies are required to draw immediate and future talent, including those with transferable skills from other industries, and groups currently underrepresented in the industry, including women, Indigenous Australians and young people.

These will be optimised where combined with more flexible working conditions and improved diversity and inclusion strategies to attract and retain underrepresented groups.

Government should identify and capitalise on longer-term opportunities. Inland Rail will provide jobs directly through its delivery and operation, but also indirectly through developments along the alignment, providing long-term employment and business opportunities.

NSW Regional Growth Development Corporation, working with cross-government agencies and educational institutions, is developing a Jobs and Skills Strategy for its Parkes Special Activation Precinct.

The strategy will identify transferable skills from the infrastructure delivery phase and other industries, and implement an employee attraction strategy and skills development program to provide around 3,000 new long-term jobs in the precinct.

Ongoing skills development

There are opportunities to do more. Where large programs of work are planned, a more holistic approach could be taken across multiple projects or packages of work to achieve more sustainable outcomes.

Programs that deliver employment outcomes are often limited by the duration of projects. New entrants may not access or retain further employment due to limited skills, and apprentices and trainees may be unable to complete their qualifications.

To break this cycle, the government could establish centralised ‘labour pools’. Contractors would be ‘host employers’ for the duration of their project, after which workers would be mobilised across future projects within the program.

This decreases risk for employers, provides more certainty for workers and allows for ongoing skills development, enhancing career opportunities and increasing industry capability through a more skilled and productive workforce.

Infrastructure Skills Advisory has 20 years of experience delivering socio-economic growth and positive social outcomes through jobs and skills strategies.

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