Australia’s infrastructure pipeline is in danger of being stymied by a deepening skills shortage and tough competition for access to the basic resources needed to build roads and other major projects.
- A skills shortage risks delaying major projects, and the number of people completing apprenticeships is dropping
- Quarry owners are warning they will struggle to supply the materials needed for major constructions
- Approvals for new quarries have also delayed getting access to resources
Industry bodies and experts say these two challenges threaten to blow out the costs of projects that are required over the coming decades to keep pace with population growth and the slowing economy.
Earlier this week, Infrastructure Australia released an audit of the nation’s needs and warned that without even more investment, many major cities would continue to be mired by crippling congestion.
Inaction will cost the national economy nearly $39 billion a year by 2031, the audit warned.
Civil engineers, businesses, builders and the audit have outlined major challenges to completing this task.
Access to extractive resources — such as sand and aggregate — is becoming more difficult as the appetite for materials increases.
Across the sector, there are warnings that a patchwork of inadequate training across the nation has created a shortage of skilled workers.
“We have an infrastructure boom, but we’re having trouble servicing that boom and keeping it going, particularly with people,” said Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group (AiGroup).
Civil Contractors Federation chief executive Chris Melham said the mining boom took potential construction workers away from the industry, and now businesses were struggling to show workers that a career building infrastructure can be secure.
“At the moment, if we were to double our infrastructure spend, we would simply not have the workforce,” he said.
And part of that is a lack of investment in skills training.
Over the last four years the number of people starting and completing apprenticeships has dropped.
“The big attraction to someone entering into a training regime is being able to move into a job after that. And we believe that’s missing at the moment,” Mr Melham said.
Sand and rocks needed for construction
With the number of major projects increasing, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, quarries are starting to experience pressure.
And with even more projects planned in the future, quarry owners are warning they will not be able to keep up with demand, meaning Australia will need to import sand and cement from overseas, pushing up the cost of projects.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews used the predicted shortfall to reject a $4 billion proposal from the Federal Government to build the East West Link, a controversial tunnel project under Melbourne.
New quarries also take years to go through planning and approvals and the sector is complaining of too much red and green tape.
“It’s not like just turning up the tap, there are a lot of barriers in place before you can do that,” Elizabeth Gibson from the Construction Material Processing Association said.
Dr Gibson said more quarries would improve quality and price for builders.
The AiGroup also says its members were reporting a growing problem for companies trying to obtain basic goods.
“The stone, quarrying materials, all of that sand is becoming more and more difficult to gather, we’re talking more and more about importing those goods,” Mr Willox said.
A Morrison Government spokesman said it was working with the states and industry to address skills and workforce challenges.
“We are keenly aware of the skilled workers Australia will need into the future. That is why we are undertaking wholesale reforms to the VET sector to create better outcomes for students and employers,” he said.
The spokesman said the primary responsibility for procurement of infrastructure projects was state and territory governments, and the Federal Government would with them to tackle all challenges.