IPWEA CEO David Jenkins: Australia’s infrastructure boom will fail without people

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    In May 2021, the Australian Government announced an increase in the national rolling 10-year infrastructure investment pipeline from $110 billion to $120 billion, a record level of funding.

    Increased infrastructure investment has formed the cornerstone of the Federal Government’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan and, as a result, the nation is in the midst of an infrastructure boom.

    While we’re seeing unprecedented investment in infrastructure, the human element of the equation has been overlooked. Infrastructure investment isn’t just about building new assets; it’s about building capacity. In an era of robust capital works budgets, too little is being invested in people and skills development.

    It’s also about asset maintenance, which is also frequently left out of the conversation. The 2021 National State of the Assets Report found that assets worth $51 billion are in poor repair in Australia – a state of affairs that urgently needs to be addressed.

    If we’re going to successfully deliver new projects and maintain existing infrastructure, we need qualified, experienced people who understand it’s not just about building a road; it’s about how you manage that asset effectively over the long term. There is no infrastructure boom without skilled people on the ground.

    Addressing the skills shortage

    Border closures and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated a pre-existing skills shortage in many fields, including engineering, which is now hampering the delivery of major infrastructure projects.

    While the Government has a role in addressing the skills shortage through opening borders and fast-tracking visas, other solutions are on the table.

    One potential solution to the immediate skills shortage issue is education. In Australia, where we have some of the most outstanding educational institutions in the southern hemisphere and thought-leading professional associations and peak bodies, we have the ability to upskill people quickly.

    Micro-credentials – bite-sized education programs that are robust, practical and short – are particularly suited to this task. In the asset-management world, many candidates for upskilling are already managing major infrastructure projects, which means they can supercharge coursework with experience gained on the job.

    Micro-credential educational programs must tick several boxes to be effective. First, they need to be accessible. We must reduce the barriers to entry to allow people from a non-technical background to be trained in infrastructure asset management.

    Courses should be short – between eight and 10 weeks in length, so participants can work while they study. They should also provide the opportunity to learn anywhere, anytime, and feature relevant and practical assessments.

    Professional associations and peak bodies such as IPWEA are uniquely placed to harness the power of our members. We have a whole family of experienced practitioners who can be called upon to deliver quality training.

    We’ve ticked all these boxes in the development of the IPWEA Asset Management Pathway, a series of short courses designed to upskill people quickly and efficiently in asset management.

    Crucially, these courses are benchmarked with World Partners in Asset Management (WPiAM), which means they provide internationally recognised accreditation.

    The key takeaway for industry is that building capacity should be the first priority for infrastructure – not the last. When it comes to building capacity and solving problems such as the skills shortage, organisations like IPWEA – and its members – play a critical role.

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