Skills, strategy and investing in the vineyard.

As published on The Fifth Estate here and City Metric here 

On the 19 February 1879, construction began on Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. On 28 July 1923, it was the turn of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

These dates are recalled, because people mark such beginnings. We make them visible. Ribbon-cutting, sod-turning, plaque-mounting – ways to say to stakeholders, this starts now: it will be money well spent. This project will move us forward.

We make growth visible too. We count cranes in year-quarters, with September’s report showing a record-breaking five hundred plus propping up the skies of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone.

Yet what of the critical human component to all projects – skills? How do we mark the achievement of acquiring a workforce able to deliver some of the most complex infrastructure projects in the world? What visible measures do we have to show there is present-day skills capacity or that we will meet future demand?

The Consult Australia 2016 Skills Survey is one such tool – but the fluctuations it shows suggest more visible indicators are needed at a much greater frequency. It shows more than two thirds (69 per cent) of large consulting firms working in the built environment now express concern over a nationwide skills shortage, compared to 8 per cent just two years ago. Over half of all large firms are struggling to recruit civil, traffic, and structural engineers too, rising to 75 per cent and 81 per  cent in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

The reality is that, whilst we marvel, applaud and celebrate the visible in the built environment, we often neglect the invisible, and fail to plan for future skills demand. We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard.

The survey also shows it is currently taking firms two years to fill mid-level roles compared to approximately two months in 2014. Only 46 per cent of large, medium and small firms are very optimistic they will find the skills to compete over the next three years.

This gloom is in part caused by boom – this year, economic growth in New South Wales and Victoria, is estimated to be 6.1 per cent and 6.4 per cent respectively. Heavy investment in public infrastructure and construction has led to demand outstripping supply which in the short-term is resolved by recruiting migrants on Section 457 visas. Collectively, these skilled professionals maintain Australia’s economic growth. Individually, they contribute spend whilst adding social, cultural and educational value.

Longer term the solution is different. Most state governments have joined Infrastructure Australia in producing long-term infrastructure plans, critical for the alleviation of rollercoaster fluctuations in supply and demand.

It is only by mapping out predicted growth and anticipated projects, by undertaking gap analyses and working backwards from future date 10, 20, or 30 years from now, that there can be an appreciation of the scale of the challenges and opportunities ahead, and an appropriate strategy can be developed. To paraphrase ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky, it is about skating to where the puck is going not to where it has been.

Without a long-term strategy, debate around Section 457 visas will continue to be politicised, zooming in on short-term retrospective data, when it needs to zoom out, be contextualised and part of a long-term conversation about what skills Australia needs to sustain economic growth.

Challenges around gender imbalance, with most firms in the Consult Australia survey employing less than a third (29 per cent) of women, would continue without targets in place to ensure cities are shaped by both genders for both genders.

There would be no framework for state or territory plans to feed into as per the national “Infrastructure Skills Plan”, referenced in the Infrastructure Australia Plan released earlier this year.

Yet as with all long-term plans, it is essential to provide short-term visible outcomes to maintain strategic direction, and aid those, notably politicians and shareholders, who work in shorter cycles.

This is why it is critical there is a concerted effort to make visible the people-part of built-environment projects. Promote the foundation stone but promote too graduates of the foundation course who laid it; gather local and national media for sod-turning but gather more for corner-turning as a company hits the 50 per cent female recruitment mark; unveil a plaque that on this day this project began, but also unveil your team, the people who will make it happen and the challenges faced to bring them together.

Make skills visible, make scarcity or abundance known – and help push for a strategic approach to future skills development in Australia.

Kevin Keith works for built environment body Consult Australia. The 2016 Consult Australia Skills Survey is available here. He tweets as @KevKeith

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