A few good men

There are forces bearing down on the construction industry that are going to change the way we build, and approach training and development.

Author

Laura Valic

Robert Sobyra
Robert Sobyra, director evidence, data & innovation, Construction Skills Queensland

Can the skills shortage in the building and construction industry disappear by luring in more workers?

This may seem an obvious solution to an immediate problem facing the sector, but according to Robert Sobyra from Construction Skills Queensland (CSQ), it is not the answer to a deep-seated structural change occurring within the Australian economy.

‘The construction industry is unique in the way that it mostly relies on young, physically capable men to produce most of its output,’ he says. ‘We are going into a future where the ratio of working age people to older people (not of working age) will be halved over the next two decades. So, that means there’s still going to be plenty of people who need things built, but there’s going to be much fewer physically capable people to build what the population needs.’

As a researcher focusing on the gig economy with the University of Queensland, and as CSQ’s director of evidence, data and innovations, Robert has a special interest in the future of work, skills and training. Head of a research team at CSQ, his focus is on forecasting construction activity and the labour market response in Queensland.

Robert says while the construction industry has seen many advancements over the centuries, the way it operates – by pulling teams together for individual jobs before splintering apart for the next one – is much like it was centuries ago, and its productivity will be significantly challenged by a dent in our labour supply. 

‘To get a certain amount of building output you need a certain amount of young men to do it – by ‘young’ I mean 18-40 years old – that hasn’t changed and that rate hasn’t changed,’ Robert says. ‘But it has got to change if we want to keep meeting the built environment needs of an expanding population…and we’re going to have to find ways to do it with fewer men.’

It is one big change the construction industry has never seen before and it’s already forcing the industry onto a path of innovation to discover more productive ways of working. Increased automation and offsite manufacturing are deemed the inevitable conclusion; just how soon, and how big of an impact it will have on the way the industry operates, is still unfolding.

‘If you look at something like the prefabrication revolution, five years ago it was really just a fringe cottage industry. But today, there are companies such as Lendlease investing around $500 million into a prefabricated timber factory in Western Sydney. They think this is the future.’

There are also some overseas players achieving astonishing ground in this space: ‘Michael Marks, CEO of construction company Katerra, has raised $3 billion of venture capital to start up his prefabricated building company. Imagine what you could do with that! He’s fixing to change the entire building industry.’

Robert admits it’s hard to argue with the sceptics when you can walk onto a random building site today and it probably won’t look that different to what it did 20 years ago.

‘There’s a kind of two track thing going on and that’s why these shifts often catch people by surprise,’ he says. ‘But there’s a small step that goes from a prefabricated frame to a prefabricated composite wall assembly that does away with the carpenter altogether – and that’s when they’ll start noticing it. These options are already out there.’

So, how do you prepare the current workforce as well as newer entrants? And if increased automation, and robotics, as some firmly believe, are part of the equation, how do you skill workers for jobs that don’t yet exist? 

Robert says that, of course, is ‘very, very difficult to do’.

 

Increased automation and offsite manufacturing are deemed the inevitable conclusion; just how soon, and how big of an impact it will have on the way the industry operates, is still unfolding.

 

‘We’ve got two challenges: one is in the next five or 10 years, the way we build is not going to be too different from the way we did it in the past 10 years, so you still need to be training people in the current methods for the right here and now,’ he says. ‘But if we’re talking about a new apprentice, then there are going to be significant changes within their career span and we need to be equipping them to be able to accommodate and absorb these changes, without knowing specifically what skills will be required.

‘I don’t think it’s the right approach to try to say “OK you need to learn how to program this piece of software” or do a specific type of task. It’s more about encouraging an openness to new ideas and setting up the structures for continuous learning.’

One deviation from the norm will be the rise of vendor training.

‘We’re not really set up in our industry particularly well for continued learning,’ Robert says. ‘The national training packages that guide the apprenticeship system and further licensing are pretty rigid and static. It needs to become much more dynamic and much more open to vendor training.’

This in short will put some of the onus of skilling workers back on product manufacturers, where workers will require specific training to install and use new products on the market.

‘It’s not like you will just go to TAFE and learn generically how to put a stud wall together; instead, you will need to learn from a specific company how to install its specific facade system, for example’ he says. ‘Creating a system that accommodates this new feature of the workforce and is agile enough to have the workforce trained up quickly and relatively inexpensively, is going to be the big challenge.’  

Robert will be speaking more on the topic of ‘The Future of Skills in Construction’ at the upcoming HIA Building Better Cities Summit on 7 August at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne. 

 

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