The lack of skilled workers from overseas threatens the delivery of major transport infrastructure projects in Australia, warn two of the nation’s leading transport industry associations.
Roads Australia (RA) and the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) presented a joint submission to Federal Parliament’s inquiry into skilled migration in March. It outlined a series of measures to address a skills shortage exacerbated by reduced migration during the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in infrastructure spending as part of the pandemic recovery.
The RA and ARA warn that the current skills shortage hampers the road and rail sectors’ capacity to meet this surge in activity. “There is currently a significant gap between demand from government for such infrastructure projects and the industry’s ability to supply,” states the joint submission.
“Governments are relying on the delivery of transport infrastructure projects to stimulate post-COVID economic activity,” says Michael Kilgariff, CEO of Roads Australia. “Our industry is willing to play its part, but the delivery of such a massive project pipeline faces challenges from a shortage of skilled labour.”
Addressing the skills gap
Of the 19 occupations included in the government’s Priority Skilled Occupation List, only two are relevant to the construction of railways and roads: construction project managers and mechanical engineers.
The rail sector is experiencing skills shortages in specialist roles, including signalling, track maintenance, train drivers and controllers, educators, trainers and assessors. Compounding the issue is a lack of rail-specific courses at a tertiary level, a shortage of qualified rail training staff across the country and inconsistent standards and systems across Australia’s rail network.
As a result, states the joint submission, “there is still a significant reliance on the ability to access international expertise”. An ARA survey found 68 per cent of organisations sourced international workers through Australia’s skilled migration program before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At more than 60 per cent, “those skilled international workers were critical for the delivery of high-value projects and operational roles”.
In 57 per cent of organisations, skilled international workers made up between 1 and 15 per cent of the workforce. A further 18 per cent reported that skilled international workers made up more than half of their workforce. According to the survey, the most in-demand roles to be filled by skilled international workers included civil and electrical engineers, designers, planners, signalling specialists, experienced ICT and construction specialists and managers, train controllers, drivers and plant operators.
The joint submission asks for occupations in rail operations, maintenance, engineering and consultancy services to be added to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation list. It reaffirms a previous recommendation made by RA that the Federal Government works with relevant industry associations to ensure updates to skilled migration programs meet industry needs.
“The ongoing closure of Australia’s international borders has made it very difficult for industry to source some of the specialised skills that are needed on major transport infrastructure projects,” says ARA CEO Caroline Wilkie. “We need to be ready to attract the skilled workers to support these projects once borders reopen.”