women speaking on panel at event
Western Sydney University students Manuel Hankoo and Lavender Liu speaking at The Fifth Estate's Tomorrowland Symposium

NSW needs to broaden the conversation about how to fix the building industry by including voices from the education sector, the digital economy and even students embarking on a career in construction, says the state’s building commissioner.

The industry is also suffering from what the commissioner, David Chandler, calls “theoretical professionals”, that is, building experts who have studied at university but lack applied experience.

“Suddenly, people are starting to realise that it is time to stop digging the same hole deeper with the same old set of hands, and perhaps bring some fresh hands to the table,” Mr Chandler told The Fifth Estate in an interview about his work overhauling of the state’s building industry.

Mr Chandler, who is responsible for investigating misconduct within the NSW building industry and driving legislative reforms, believes the sector faces systemic challenges around design, procurement and building operations.

A spotlight has been placed on the industry following serious damage to and evacuations from a number of high-rise residential towers in Sydney, over the past 18 months, including most recently at Mascot Towers. Emergency crews were called to the apartments in recent days after reports that brick facades had cracked.

Last Thursday, the government announced recruitment was underway for industry experts who could help deliver its building reform agenda.

Mr Chandler will work on the industry’s transformation with a team of 15 hand-picked experts, and another 60 industry professionals who will help weed out bad practise in the industry.

He hopes to recruit at least one of his leadership team from the education sector because he says it is vital people working in the sector constantly upgrade their skills, and that young people joining the industry are taught best-practice building methods.

“Not a single education organisation put any submission in to the [government’s] Building Strong Foundations discussion paper,” Mr Chandler said.

NSW has some 340,000 people engaged across the professional/applied trades in construction. I believe we need to attract and replace, with new entrants, one third of this talent pool by 2030.

We could be facing a capability shortage that the industry has never seen before – David Chandler

“We need to train up at least a third of the existing remaining workforce with new skills within that same period; [they need] a huge uplift in their skills,” he said, warning that if this didn’t happen NSW would face “a capability shortage that the industry has never seen before”.

“That black hole will make the capability shortage that we have had over the past 20 years look like a mere blimp.”

Mr Chandler said Australian universities weren’t thinking about this education gap, which is why it was so important to include an “influential educator” in his leadership team.

He also wants school leavers to realise that university is not the only starting point for a career in the construction sector.

“One of the problems we have had as an industry is that we have ended up making what I call the theoretical professional, as opposed to the applied professional.

“In Europe, it would be unheard of for an architect to start in architecture school without having first spent a couple of years in a vocational stream.”

In the past, Mr Chandler has also voiced concerns about the large gap between the top end of town – premium builds – and the bulk of construction for the mass market. Only “elite” builders made submissions to his commission.

“We don’t know what is happening in the mass market,” he told The Fifth Estate’s Tomorrowland19 conference in December. “The small end of town doesn’t represent itself in those places.”

He also wants to hear from experts in the digital economy.

Digital skills are essential

“How could we possibly paint a picture for the industry for the next five to 10 years without a person who has a deep ability to [explain] what the digital economy will look like and the sorts of capabilities that will be needed to engage with a digital economy,” he said.

There is also the question of ethics. It’s one thing for builders and developers to say they are “customer-focused” and another to actually be customer focused, he said.

“How about having an ethicist at the table? Every now and then, we think we know the difference between right and wrong, and every now and then you just might need your compass reset.

“How about having an ethicist at the table? Every now and then, we think we know the difference between right and wrong, and every now and then you just might need your compass reset.

“Wouldn’t it be good to have someone in the room who could see everything from an ethical perspective rather than us just seeing it from our perspective? Because, frankly, I think … we have lost our way.”

Finally, what better way to get a new perspective on the sector than hearing from those at the start of their career?

“Why don’t we have a student embarking on a construction career at the table? Wouldn’t it be good to have a young person in the room who might tell us what it is like at the beginning, because we are all at the end of our careers.”

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