Alarm bells are ringing about the future availability of various construction professionals ranging from trades and skilled labour to civil engineers, project managers and site managers. The latest Hays Salary Guide report found that 47 per cent of construction businesses intend to increase their staffing levels in 2019-2020, with infrastructure projects and construction for health and education projects driving particularly high demands for talent.
Specialist expertise including estimators, design engineers and supervisors with experience on major commercial projects are going to be widely sought in Victoria, NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.
Where are all the tradies?
On the trades front, the Commonwealth Department of Jobs and Small Business Skills Shortage Report released earlier this year highlighted that many employers struggled to find suitable applicants throughout 2018. According to the report, there was, on average, just one suitable applicant per vacancy. Eight of the nine key trades were identified as having a major shortage of suitable workers. Apart from painting trades, all others—glaziers, plumbers, cabinetmakers, carpenters and joiners, plasterers, wall and floor tilers, stonemasons and bricklayers—were in short supply.
But while the recent residential sector slowdown has eased the critical shortage for some trades, including bricklayers, industry expert Tony Bishop, Regional Manager North at Australian Brick & Blocklaying Training Foundation, believes the shortage is likely to reappear when market conditions improve.
The slow-down is really resulting in a reduction in ongoing opportunities for new talent. In the medium to long term, such an approach also affects the number of skilled young workers who can replace those retiring from the profession.
He tells Jobsite that apprentices are generally “last on and first off” in terms of hiring. Therefore, the slow-down is really resulting in a reduction in ongoing opportunities for new talent. In the medium to long term, such an approach also affects the number of skilled young workers who can replace those retiring from the profession.
Bishop explains that when there is a shortage of tradespeople, many projects change their preference from bricks and masonry to other products, such as cladding or blueboard.
This is not always the best outcome for projects in the long run, however. Bricks require very little maintenance over the building lifecycle, whereas cladding and board products will need repair, repainting or replacement in the future.
The Shortage’s Effect on Residential Building
Styles for residential construction have also changed. In many states, composite cladding products, concrete or rendered boards have replaced brick veneer as the façade of choice. Western Australia, however, maintains a high demand for the classic double brick.
Bishop says that the durability and low-maintenance nature of brick is one of the reasons behind its former popularity in hospitals and other public projects. In the current market, it is competing against precast concrete, tilt panel construction and other approaches that aim to reduce the need for onsite labour.
To stay in business, many bricklaying companies are starting to diversify. They begin offering other skills and services including blockwork, stonework, scaffolding and façade products and installation. This helps them steer a course through market fluctuations so they can retain staff.
However, not all bricklaying companies need to worry about the lack of jobs. Both ornamental brickwork and structural brickwork remain in extremely high demand.
“The companies that specialise in that are booked up with jobs for months ahead,” Bishop said.
That kind of workmanship is part of the reason apprentices need to be recruited, trained and retained for the full four years. What is more, these are not skills that can be replaced with a robot bricklaying machine, Bishop explained.
In fact, the lack of appropriate experience has been identified as one of the factors contributing to a shortage of suitable applicants for trade jobs.
Bishop says the Become a Bricklayer initiative aims to help address that by delivering short training and work-readiness programs that “sort the contenders from the pretenders.”
“A lot of people now don’t advertise for apprentices—they contact us,” he says.
To ensure there is a viable pipeline of talent for years to come, Bishop said, there needs to be a “mature conversation about the future of the industry.”
To ensure there is a viable pipeline of talent for years to come, Bishop said, there needs to be a “mature conversation about the future of the industry.” This includes tackling issues like certification, training pathways, lifelong professional learning and how to encourage parents to support their kids choosing a trade as an appropriate career choice.
Bishop points out that one’s career path doesn’t stop once they’re qualified as a bricklayer. There are many ways it can evolve and progress, including becoming a project manager, licensed builder or specialist in building science.
Playbook of Solutions
The pool of suitable workers with this kind of expertise may also prove to fall short of demand in the near future, according to the newly-released National Infrastructure Audit from Infrastructure Australia.
The Audit found that while infrastructure engineering activity is at record levels, the volume of work is volatile. There is also a shortage of capacity, skills and resources to deliver the projects.
One of the issues that could be affecting the ability to recruit and retain talent and address the skills shortage is the culture of the industry, the report said. An ongoing gender imbalance and challenges in regards to worker safety and wellbeing, in particular, appear to be a major constraint when it comes to “the sector’s attractiveness to potential future employees.”
Master Builders Australia responded to the audit with a clear call for action to ensure an adequate workforce.
“There must also be a strong focus on investing in the development of more skilled tradespeople needed to construct the pipeline of infrastructure projects,” MBA CEO Denita Wawn said.
“A highly skilled workforce will also be needed to meet future demand for social infrastructure such as hospitals, education and aged care facilities. It’s pleasing to see this category is now more of a focus for the nation’s infrastructure planners.”