Talk of shortages in the construction industry have ramped up with a spate of media reports last week and our own early this month on the rising costs of materials. 

It’s not just timber, concrete and steel coming up in short supply as activity booms and covid-interupted supply chains struggle to keep up.

The industry is now witnessing a shortage of both skilled and unskilled workers, affecting both major cities and regional areas. 

Hunter Labour Hire, which supplies labourers and tradespeople for construction projects in Sydney reported last month that many building companies were struggling to fill roles such as carpenters, bricklayers, electricians and even project managers.

The report named major commercial and infrastructure projects such as Barangaroo, Westconnex and the North West Rail Link, as well as a boom in residential activity, as vacuuming up available workers. 

Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW chief executive Steve Mann told The Fifth Estate that supply of skilled tradespeople was “extremely tight” as residential construction took off around Newcastle and up the northern NSW coastline. 

A report released last week by the UDIA showed that supply chain disruptions and escalating marketplace uncertainty have resulted in project launch delays or abandonments and declining sales.

“It’s all about sustainability in the market. If we’ve got a sustainable market that is endeavouring to meet demand then you can manage your work force and rightsize,” Mr Mann said.  

“Moving forward we don’t want these big spikes … and the real problem is it’s catching out the rezoning and the infrastructure pipelines.” 

We do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to apprenticeships and traineeships but not enough 

Executive director at Master Builders Association New South Wales Brian Seidler said the ingredients for a skills shortage in Australia existed prior to COVID-19, with the apprenticeship completion rate either stagnant or decreasing for years before. 

“We do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to apprenticeships and traineeships but not enough. We need more carpenters, bricklayers, specialists in water proofing, we need skilled tradespeople, it’s quite clear,” Mr Seidler said. 

“The consumer always wants their job done straight away and we’re seeing that people will have to wait now I think.” 

Young kids need to do their maths

Seidler said a drop in skilled migration was affecting the issue, but that the industry should be looking to attract more young Australians as well, by lifting the profile of the trades and increasing support for mathematical skills take up in school, which is seen as a boundary for many to enter the skilled trades. 

With the pressure from increased activity in the building industry Seidler added that some contractors could be in a position to charge more for their services. 

“What’s charged out there will vary significantly, depending on where you’re building unfortunately. What small business charges the mums and dads to build a house varies immensely,” Seidler said. 

“If you’re basing it on the fact that people can’t get hold of tradespeople to do their work because there’s so much work around then that will impact cost. Supply and demand, the old adage.” 

Adam Garnys principal consultant with CTEC, our advertising sponsor for Back to My Happy Healthy Workplaces, said business was strong. The company flags itself as providing “scientific solutions to indoor quality and we know from previous conversations it does some intensive work along those lines in demanding environments such as science labs where poor quality air could make people very ill.

He’s got about 40 staff on the books already and it’s been a steady number over the past few years but now he’s adding “three or four” people to help with the work

“In Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney there’s continual growth and awareness for indoor air quality in general.”

Key concerns are potable water quality, air tightness and the potential for mould.

This last item got us asking what he thinks about the big Passive House debate we had earlier this year (more than 14,000 words of point by point debate between experts on the “for” and “against” the airtight system.)

Garnys was moderate in his views. He thought for PH was still in its infancy and there were a lot of issues that would become clearer and problems easier to manage if a critical mass could be achieved in industry takeup. For now, there was the concept of  “airtight” and  “leaky” houses but also something in between. 

We flagged we should probably get back to this contentious topic soon. But if you’re curious how contentious, take a look at what already been aired (no pun intended):

The Passive House – the long form debate, point by point 

Another person who flagged strong growth in the built environment patch was Bryon Price, Bryon Price, Strategic Development Director, A.G. Coombes who will speak about the reality of Covid and that new challenges of conditioning air that the pandemic has landed us with at our event (and his insights will be far from complacency-inducing).

As a consultant he too can feel the searing heat of construction demand. In our briefing on Friday he said people had little conception of how widespread the boom is.

Bear in mind what these quantity surveyors tell us is historic and evidenced based, while other reports are more immediate – about what’s happening on the ground.

You can guess that the next thing will be labour price rises.

In the food and beverage industry there are many who will say it’s about time; in construction, well, that means bigger build costs. And as our earth continues to suffer under the stress of our demand there will be the cool headed in our patch who will also say, about time.

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  1. So the federal government cut funding to TAFE because it wants to justify its plan for higher immigration

  2. Way back in the good old days when house were affordable unemployment below 2%,, only a few homeless people and no mortgage stress we managed with a migration level of 70,000. In that era we manufactured cars, ships, rolling stock, white goods and electrical equipment. We managed this because we funded TAFE and unis and did not take the cheap option of reliance on imported skilled and unskilled people who could be exploited .