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Cadetships key to addressing projected skills shortfall

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A traineeship program designed to develop the skills of young people has helped Eurobodalla Shire Council address skills shortages in key areas.

Twenty years ago, Eurobodalla Shire Council faced a chronic skills shortage. An ageing workforce, the exodus of local youth to pursue education and career opportunities in larger cities, a competitive labour market and a lack of skills recognition and pathways for career progression meant that the Council struggled to recruit qualified staff, particularly in supervisory roles.

There was just one senior engineer in a division of 143 in 2006 when Warren Sharpe took on the role of Group Manager, Roads & Recreation at Eurobodalla Shire Council. “That was unsustainable,” says Sharpe, the Council’s current Director of Infrastructure and a past president of IPWEA NSW.

Sharpe set himself two goals to address this skills shortage. The first was to increase the number of trainee staff to 10 per cent of the total workforce under a new cadetship program. The second was to train all existing staff in Certificate III accreditations.

He succeeded on both counts. Today, a cadet, trainee and apprentice program across all areas of operations forms “an essential part of our training and succession plan,” says Sharpe. A bottom-up approach to upskilling and the introduction of a skills matrix mapping out clear pathways to supervisory roles has improved career progression within the organisation. “[It] doesn’t matter how experienced you are when you come to us; everyone in the team must take on at least a nationally accredited Cert Three or higher program.”

Planning for a workforce shortfall

The Council currently employs 48 trainees in a workforce of around 250. Since 2018, 83 trainees have completed the cadetship program, “a big number for a council our size,” Sharpe says.

“Many of our people under this program are very young, but some come to us wanting a new direction much later in life,” he explains.

“When we move someone from being a temporary cadet into a permanent technical role, we immediately replace them with another cadet. We don’t wait for that person to get to the qualified engineering status. We have a constant flow of new people coming in.”

Sharpe says cadetship programs are critical to addressing a national skills shortage in engineering. According to Infrastructure Australia, the projected shortfall of engineers, scientists and architects in Australia between 2021 and 2024 is 70,000. “It’s a supply/demand equation,” says Sharpe. “If only some councils do it, and do it well, inevitably there will be a shortage. If we all do it, and we do it well, then we won’t have that issue.”

The Council’s trainees have made a critical contribution to the recovery work that has followed the nine natural disasters, including fire and flood, that have devastated the region in the past two years. “Without those young people, I don’t know how we would have got through this process,” he says. “I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”

Hands-on training

Crucial to the program’s success is the hands-on training cadets at the Council receive in their first year. “They’re in the trench with operational staff, learning how to do the job,” says Sharpe.

Part of the program’s success lies in a proactive approach to talent development. “Some councils put cadets on and keep them as a cadet … until they finish their apprenticeship,” says Sharpe. At Eurobodalla Shire Council, promising cadets are transitioned to permanent roles while they complete their studies. “It’s much fairer … and from a market perspective, it’s a better way to retain young people,” says Sharpe. “You put a lot of effort in, but you get a big return.”

Cadets quickly become high-value employees. “It’s a bit of a misnomer that you don’t get value until the person is fully qualified,” says Sharpe. “We have young people who are still doing their cadetship who have moved into a technical role and managing $5 million sewer contracts, for instance, and doing a really good job of it.”

Some regional councils lack the resources to support cadets through mentorship and training opportunities. “That’s where IPWEA comes in – New South Wales has a fantastic regional IPWEA presence,” says Sharpe. “Young people struggling to have technical mentoring because of the size and scale of their council can use those regional networks to great value.”

Other councils are wary of investing in cadets, only to lose them once they’re qualified. Sharpe, whose team recently lost a newly qualified engineer to the neighbouring shire of Bega, prefers to view skills development from a sector-wide perspective. “We should … say, ‘That’s something to celebrate. We trained someone really well – let’s get another cadet.’”

Twenty years ago, Eurobodalla Shire Council faced a chronic skills shortage. An ageing workforce, the exodus of local youth to pursue education and career opportunities in larger cities, a competitive labour market and a lack of skills recognition and pathways for career progression meant that the Council struggled to recruit qualified staff, particularly in supervisory roles.

There was just one senior engineer in a division of 143 in 2006 when Warren Sharpe took on the role of Group Manager, Roads & Recreation at Eurobodalla Shire Council. “That was unsustainable,” says Sharpe, the Council’s current Director of Infrastructure and a past president of IPWEA NSW.

Sharpe set himself two goals to address this skills shortage. The first was to increase the number of trainee staff to 10 per cent of the total workforce under a new cadetship program. The second was to train all existing staff in Certificate III accreditations.

He succeeded on both counts. Today, a cadet, trainee and apprentice program across all areas of operations forms “an essential part of our training and succession plan,” says Sharpe. A bottom-up approach to upskilling and the introduction of a skills matrix mapping out clear pathways to supervisory roles has improved career progression within the organisation. “[It] doesn’t matter how experienced you are when you come to us; everyone in the team must take on at least a nationally accredited Cert Three or higher program.”

Planning for a workforce shortfall

The Council currently employs 48 trainees in a workforce of around 250. Since 2018, 83 trainees have completed the cadetship program, “a big number for a council our size,” Sharpe says.

“Many of our people under this program are very young, but some come to us wanting a new direction much later in life,” he explains.

“When we move someone from being a temporary cadet into a permanent technical role, we immediately replace them with another cadet. We don’t wait for that person to get to the qualified engineering status. We have a constant flow of new people coming in.”

Sharpe says cadetship programs are critical to addressing a national skills shortage in engineering. According to Infrastructure Australia, the projected shortfall of engineers, scientists and architects in Australia between 2021 and 2024 is 70,000. “It’s a supply/demand equation,” says Sharpe. “If only some councils do it, and do it well, inevitably there will be a shortage. If we all do it, and we do it well, then we won’t have that issue.”

The Council’s trainees have made a critical contribution to the recovery work that has followed the nine natural disasters, including fire and flood, that have devastated the region in the past two years. “Without those young people, I don’t know how we would have got through this process,” he says. “I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”

Hands-on training

Crucial to the program’s success is the hands-on training cadets at the Council receive in their first year. “They’re in the trench with operational staff, learning how to do the job,” says Sharpe.

Part of the program’s success lies in a proactive approach to talent development. “Some councils put cadets on and keep them as a cadet … until they finish their apprenticeship,” says Sharpe. At Eurobodalla Shire Council, promising cadets are transitioned to permanent roles while they complete their studies. “It’s much fairer … and from a market perspective, it’s a better way to retain young people,” says Sharpe. “You put a lot of effort in, but you get a big return.”

Cadets quickly become high-value employees. “It’s a bit of a misnomer that you don’t get value until the person is fully qualified,” says Sharpe. “We have young people who are still doing their cadetship who have moved into a technical role and managing $5 million sewer contracts, for instance, and doing a really good job of it.”

Some regional councils lack the resources to support cadets through mentorship and training opportunities. “That’s where IPWEA comes in – New South Wales has a fantastic regional IPWEA presence,” says Sharpe. “Young people struggling to have technical mentoring because of the size and scale of their council can use those regional networks to great value.”

Other councils are wary of investing in cadets, only to lose them once they’re qualified. Sharpe, whose team recently lost a newly qualified engineer to the neighbouring shire of Bega, prefers to view skills development from a sector-wide perspective. “We should … say, ‘That’s something to celebrate. We trained someone really well – let’s get another cadet.’”

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