Major players in the homebuilding industry are focusing on training future generations of construction workers.
WORKFORCE shortages are the primary concern for most building executives in Western Australia.
This has been the case since the onset of the pandemic when government stimulus triggered a tsunami of demand for new homes.
As BGC Australia chief executive Danny Cooper said, this surge in demand occurred at a time when the state’s construction workforce had been hollowed out by a drop in demand for housing.
“In WA, we started the uplift in housing around the stimulus with a really low trade base,” he said.
“Every other state was busy, so their trades had enough work on, and our borders were shut for a time.”
Between 2014 and 2019, homebuilding work in WA dried up, so trades moved out of the state or to other industries.
WA building starts to hit a 37-year low of about 10,000 home builds in 2019-20, coming off a peak of about 25,000 in 2015.
Ballooning demand led to a spike in home build starts, which peaked at close to 22,000 in 2021, Housing Industry Association figures show.
Dwelling starts have since dropped to about 15,000, but there remains a backlog of homes to be completed.
Low trade availability means finishing homes on time has been challenging, with WA’s annual home completion rate currently at about 13,500.
A recent federal government target to build 1.2 million homes nationwide over five years from mid-2024 means WA would need to increase to about 24,000 homes each year.
The severe shortfall in construction workers has mobilsed government and industry to find ways to attract more people to the sector, with trainees and apprentices a key part of that skills equation.
While there has been a steady increase in apprentices and trainees in the construction sector, industry experts say a lot more are needed to plug the shortfall in trades.
“If the forecasts are to be believed, and we have a doubling of housing starts between now and the 2026 financial year, the amount of labour we’re going to need can’t just be a trickle increase [in] apprentices,” Mr Cooper said earlier this year.
“It needs to be a flood.”
Construction and trade teacher Rob Deurloo (right) oversees student Luke Williams’ bricklaying methods. Photo: SEDA College
Construction Training Fund figures show that 10,134 apprentices and trainees were employed in the state’s construction industry as of June 2023, a 2.2 per cent increase on the previous year.
This compared with 8,148 in 2021 and 6,350 in 2020.
“We will start seeing more year two [apprentices] and threes and fours coming through, and that will have more impact on the sector [in terms of productivity],” she said.
Ms Allen added that WA’s history of economic peaks and troughs had created a tendency for industry to turn the tap on and off in terms of sourcing trades.
A steadier approach was required, she said.
“This is where the sector has to realise they’ve got to continue to train to keep that pipeline,” Ms Allen told Business News.
“Once the switch is flicked, you don’t have four years to wait to have an experienced workforce; it takes time to train them.”
Ms Allen said school students were increasingly recognising the value of pursuing a trade amid the high demand for skilled labour.
“We noticed a lot when we’re talking to schools … they’re understanding that the vocational education system isn’t the poor cousin, that it’s actually a really great career path for a lot of students,” she said.
Department of Education statistics shows the number of students who completed at least one construction industry qualification during years 10, 11 or 12 has risen steadily.
In 2018, 845 students achieved this, compared with 784 in 2021 and 862 last year.
The state government’s subsidies for apprenticeships – where it pays tuition fees for students to learn a trade across priority industries– has been a major incentive for apprentices and trainees.
Mr Cooper added that the solid pipeline of work was a key drawcard for people looking to learn a trade.
“We know the population is going to continue to grow [and] there’s a shortage of housing stock,” he said.
“We’ve got a government that is trying to put in 1.2 million new homes, [which] will create all sorts of opportunities for people to come into their trade, to set up their own small business, make it a larger business, move into construction management, whatever that might be.
“I think we’ve got to articulate those pathways for parents in the first instance, so they can advise their children, but also for children to see it as an exciting career.”
BGC Australia is working with schools in a bid to increase participation in the construction industry, with a program at Cambridge’s SEDA College year 11 and 12 students.
Launched last year, the program helps set students up for a career in the building sector, through hands-on learning across multiple trades.
There are currently 20 students enrolled in the course, which runs out of BGC’s classroom facility in Hazelmere.
The program provides vocational education and training qualifications in construction, specialising in brick and block laying, as well as carpentry and joinery.
“These two areas of trade are the main focus of their second year, but … our partnership with BGC allows our students to try out a huge array of trades and see what jumps out to them,” a SEDA College spokesperson said.
“This year, for example, our students have tried tiling, welding, and plaster boarding, to name a few, and have had the opportunity to check out mining operations.”
Students enrolled in the program are also required to complete 110 hours of workplace learning during their time at SEDA, which BGC often facilitates.
The state’s largest homebuilder, ABN Group, has had a significant focus on WA apprentices since it launched its own registered training organisation, ABN Training, in 2004.
More than 1,600 men and women have participated in ABN Training programs during the past two decades, and the company currently has 143 apprentices on its books.
ABN Group managing director Dale Alcock told Business News the builder aimed to employ about 150 apprentices each year, which was a desirable number to ensure each apprentice received individual attention.
“We offer a broad range of apprenticeships, including tiling, plumbing, plastering, concreting, stone masonry, painting, cabinet making and more,” Mr Alcock said.
“Currently, our key focus is to develop more bricklayers and carpenters, which will support the WA housing market’s needs both now and for the near future.”
Mr Alcock said it was important to incentivise apprentices to enter the construction industry, particularly with the demand for skilled construction labour and competition from the mining sector.
“We invest considerably in our ABN Training program, but we lose a significant portion of our apprentices from industry within the first few years of them completing their training,” he said.
“We believe more can be done to retain this skills base within industry.”
ABN Training partners with several learning institutions across Perth and the South West to offer students work placements and apprenticeships, in addition to its on-site opportunities.