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No One Left to Train

A clearer example of Australia’s multi-speed economy would be hard to find. I was comparing notes with a successful small builder on the weekend who had advertised for a carpenter and he received 310 applications. By comparison, our advertisement for a Service Manager and Diesel Fitters attracted less than a tenth of that. We also know of several customers of ours who have lost roughly half their diesel fitters in the last month. Building and earthmoving are both broadly engaged in the same construction industry and our businesses are both based in South East Qld. With “close” proximity places like Gladstone adding to the list of “mining” towns now screaming out for tradesmen of all descriptions (not least building trades), one would be inclined to ask – why the difference, and more importantly, what happens next?

Some of the answer can be found in the daily media hype about the “Mining billions”, with particularly young, un-attached people just out of their trade and still needing some work skills seeing the chance to cash in on their qualifications. And who can blame them, as this is their modern gold rush? For a hard working and diligent saver, there is no doubt that this could help set you up for life. What’s not so much talked about is the sacrifices such as working in 40-50 degC heat and very long hours, then loosing a day or two of their days off travelling “home”. The job is also different, usually involving less complex tasks and lot’s of paperwork. The tax man takes their slice out of the extra income and with the cost of living being much higher in these areas, far from everyone comes back with a fatter bank balance. The social isolation both at home (where others peoples’ lives go on as normal) and away takes its toll on making and keeping relationships going, or indeed providing the ability to be involved in things like sporting activities.

The full answer to the shortage of Diesel fitters is not as straight forward as one might think. There are a number of factors at play that are all part of the cause. We regularly see applications from people who “did their time” at machinery dealers and earth moving businesses with workshops. The mining industry boasts one of the highest investments in staff training out of any industry, but when was the last time you saw an applicant who cut their teeth at a mine site? A Diesel fitter needs considerable knowledge in many skill areas which is only offered by businesses like RD Williams that does most work in house. By comparison, most carpentry apprentices get full exposure to all their trade skills whilst working for the true “one man band” sub-contractors who work for many and varied customers – an option usually not open to Diesel Fitter Apprentices. Further, diesel fitting is a physically demanding trade which takes its’ toll on the body, hence there are not enough old hands left in the game to help pass on their knowledge.

The fitter shortage is going to get increasingly worse. We are now in the downward cycle where the traditional training grounds have lost their capacity (skilled trades people) to train the next generation. And why should these businesses be expected to continue to invest the time, money and energy training more people who are hoping to catch the first money train out as soon as they have enough tickets to stand at the platform? With increased Safety requirements and a shortage of people on our mine sites, the tasks being performed there are becoming increasingly mundane and focussed on keeping the machine running than actually fixing anything. Remove, send back to RD Williams or someone similar to fix, and re-fit a replacement. In more and more cases, this means scrap and replace with a new one made overseas, but is the more economical and quicker solution. For example, you used to turn the pins on your undercarriage, but now you replace with a new set.

Where does that leave Australia? Well, the above can be said for many occupations. Our Manufacturing industries have been losing out to overseas suppliers for years by being hamstrung with laws and employment conditions that are uncompetitive in a global environment. If you struggle to be profitable over the coming year, then the business is probably not too focussed on bringing through the next generation, yet Government is increasingly asking businesses to carry the cost of developing our workforce.

It is not just products that are being sourced overseas. A large gas organisation recently outsourced its Engineering work for a new Australian plant to the Philippines because of much lower employment costs. Despite what all the recent strikes might be making out about fair pay and requests for job “guarantees”, we now live in a global employment market, with things like 457 Visas becoming an increasingly common fixture in many industries. Our Universities have for years been more concerned about maximising overseas fee paying student quotas than educating Australians. In the business world, there is a uniquely Australian fixation that thinks of Training as obtaining induction passes, tickets and licences for an increasing array of standard job tasks that are part of the trade. Training and Education should be about development of people to equip them with job skills and knowledge to think for themselves about the job they have to do. We have developed a short sighted perspective of looking no further ahead than tomorrow, not what’s required for the next generation. We are about to pay a very hefty price, as Australian businesses have lost the capacity to contribute to passing on hard earned knowledge that can only come from being able to provide experience.

As always, Onwards and Upwards!

Fred Carlsson
General Manager