Skills shortage bites

BIG construction and mining developments in Western Australia’s north are draining the State’s skilled labour market and, while the problem is not a new one, many of WA’s labour supply/recruitment companies are saying the demand is unprecedented.

That demand, which has really heated up in the past few months, is primarily being fuelled by the oil and gas expansion on the North West Shelf and the ramping up of large mining construction and development projects in the Pilbara.

Iron Ore mining projects such as BHP Billiton’s Yandi mine and Area C expansions, Robe River’s West Angelas mine, Newcrest’s $1 billion Telfer goldmine development and Woodside’s Train Four gas project on the Burrup Peninsula are being billed as the main causes.

The skills drain is being felt across all trades and skilled labour fields but most acutely with electricians, boilermakers, welders, heavy-duty mechanics, fitters and turners.

The lack of workers is driving prices up for good workers, which is in turn having a vacuum effect on trades and skilled workers in Perth who are setting their sights on the big-dollar, short-term projects up north.

Some trades have the potential to make $70,000 to $80,000 within five to six months, while hourly rates for others go up as much as $2 from week-to-week, according to industry sources.

As a result, many companies are resorting to either grabbing the local workers who are left or simply bringing in workers from interstate and overseas.

WA Business News spoke with one company that is bringing workers from overseas to meet demand and another preparing to do so.

And while the demand is a boon for workers’ wallets, the employment companies are not so sure about it.

Small Perth employment agency Austec Human Resource Solutions, which specialises in suppling labour to the mining and construction industry, has witnessed demand increase two-fold.

Austec manager Zeffron Reeves said while having less labour was better than having more, the big prices some contractors were prepared to pay in order to meet contract deadlines made it hard to compete.

“We just can’t get them [workers] for the price big companies are prepared to pay,” he said.

The demand is being felt by some of Australia’s largest recruitment agencies and is not just limited to WA with New South Wales and Victoria feeling the pinch.

The WA branch of Integrated Group Ltd, which is one of Australia’s largest labour supply and recruitment companies is receiving 20 to 30 calls a week for workers it cannot get.

Integrated Group WA and Northern territory manager Craig Hudson, who has been in the industry for almost seven years, said he had never seen demand as strong as this and predicted that it could last between six months to a year.

“It makes it challenging for our business,” Mr Hudson said.

He said the problem, which was a lack of apprentices, really needed to be addressed in the long term.

Mr Hudson said that although the WA Government was trying to assist in some ways, such as the short-term Skill-up for the Burrup retraining program, the lack of apprentices was a hangover from five to ten years.

“It requires industry and educators to really get together and kick-start something,” he said.

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