The must read and comprehensive Infrastructure Market Capacity report that Infrastructure Australia released in October makes for sobering reading.
It predicts that more than 100,000 skilled positions in infrastructure could be vacant by mid-2023, tripling the size of the existing workforce shortage.
And it makes clear that this problem is broad-based. Of the 50 occupations identified in the report, only 16 are estimated to have sufficient capacity to meet current demand.
Perhaps the most concerning finding is that engineers – who play a key role in both the development and the maintenance of infrastructure – are in particularly short supply.
Without adequate engineering expertise, no new infrastructure project can succeed. What’s more, if we lack engineers with asset management training, our existing infrastructure will deteriorate rapidly, creating even more work.
Australia’s five-year plan to build more than $218 billion in new infrastructure could be hindered if the report’s predictions hold true.
However, this does represent an opportunity. Now is the time for a co-ordinated national strategy to upskill existing workers and train new ones.
It will require creative thinking and a willingness to try novel approaches. But it could solve this problem for good.
Firstly, we must embrace ongoing training so that our existing workforce continues to operate at maximum efficiency.
This needn’t be a significant drain on employees’ time. For example, the Asset Management Pathway that IPWEA has developed offers a series of ‘micro credentials’ that can be obtained individually or in succession and do not require a full-time study commitment.
These asset management courses draw on IPWEA’s leading manuals such as the International Infrastructure Management Manual (IIMM) and are taught by carefully selected practitioners. They are delivered online, improving access and reducing cost.
Importantly, there are no barriers to entry. That means public works professionals of all backgrounds can upskill and help create efficiencies within their organisations.
Secondly, we must encourage our State and Federal governments to think holistically about infrastructure in Australia and provide education funding to their local-government counterparts.
This model has already proven effective in South Australia, where state funding recently facilitated the roll-out of IPWEA’s Foundations course to six local councils.
In Canada, the Federal Government is doing the same thing, funding (amongst others) IPWEA-developed courses for local governments to build the country’s asset management capabilities.
Thirdly, we must spread the word that municipal engineering – and, in particular, asset management – are viable and rewarding long-term professions.
Australia needs a stronger pipeline of talent for our sector, and we must do more at the school level (through STEM subjects and careers programs) to develop it.
We all know that an engineering job in local government can be incredibly fulfilling, but that message is not yet reaching enough of our young people.
IPWEA is currently drafting a white paper that will explain these and other recommendations in greater detail. But there’s plenty that stakeholders can do right now – including establishing dialogues across tiers of government.
If the Infrastructure Australia report is any indication, we have no time to waste.