Now is the time for training

COVID-19 has had a marked impact on most working lives. While many are facing challenges, the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia and its various branches is encouraging those in a position to up-skill to use this time to help prepare themselves for the future.

In early 2020 Infrastructure Australia found the growing demand faced by Australia’s road network and the high cost of maintaining roads was contributing to an overall maintenance backlog.

As construction continues across the country during COVID-19 this presents the opportunity for all levels of government to address the road maintenance backlog. Pushing forward some of these projects could also help to stimulate the economy and drive local employment.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said in April that he had written to all local governments requesting they bring forward maintenance projects to stimulate the economy and support local jobs.

However, COVID-19 is putting added pressure onto councils and their ability to retain staff. In mid-April the Australian Local Government Association called on the government for local councils to be included in the Federal Government’s Job Keeper payment after estimates showed a large number of employees were at risk of being laid off.

In the face of these challenges, there is room for opportunity. In some cases, councils and state governments now have the chance to address the skills shortage and even the maintenance backlog by employing the construction sector to begin maintenance projects.

Francine Binns, Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) NSW CEO says the pandemic has created a focus in many areas from federal, state and local governments to get works moving as this would be advantageous for employment opportunities, reducing the skills shortage and economic stimulation in regionally.

“Getting these projects moving is in line with the IPWEA mission, to enhance the quality of life of our communities through public works and services, especially at this time,” Ms. Binns says.

With reduced commuting and interstate travel, IPWEA is urging its members to use any time presented by COVID-19 to expand knowledge.

“I think there is a great opportunity for local government to bring forward some shorter-term infrastructure projects such as improvements from local roads, pathways and parks. On these projects we can teach people important skills in those areas which could have a positive impact,” Ms. Binns says.

She says in the past many people have been reliant on city centres for job opportunities, but as COVID-19 has shown workers can be flexible and adapt to remote working, now is the time for local governments to entice people out to the regions. This way workers can gain practical learning opportunities in remote places instead of in city centres as a first choice.

“I think the pandemic is going to change our way of thinking. For example, jobs in the regions might become more attractive.”

IPWEA has long served the public works sector to grow networks, inform, connect and transfer knowledge and a large part of this has involved events, training and certificates.

National CEO David Jenkins says COVID-19 presents an opportunity for individuals and organisations to look at training and development needs.

“I think everyone should be turning towards associations in these times, as they are the bodies that can provide them with the right information and tools to move forward,” Mr. Jenkins says.

As many of IPWEA’s courses and development programs were already based online, the main aspect the organisation will be adapting is its face-to-face learning.

“I think it’s important from a learning perspective that we engage people in the tasks. When you shift face-to-face learning opportunities online you still must have those face-to-face elements. IPWEA is ensuring that its webinars include live question and answer sessions with participants which helps to synthesise learning and gives people a sense of connection,” Mr. Jenkins says.

“For us online education and training is not new, it is tried and tested. While we have an eight-week long internationally recognised professional certificate, there are shorter sessions and webinars for people to try online first.”

He says online courses are a great way to develop skills and ensure that people can come out of this time with a stronger education moving forward.

“In this job market unfortunately we have seen people lose their jobs or be stood down and if you do get into that tough position you want to be able to up-skill yourself so when job opportunities come up you are best placed to be re-employed.”

Ms. Binns says IPWEA NSW are looking for the gaps in training and are planning to deliver learning courses in a variety of formats, so that the industry can make the most of this opportunity.

Each year the NSW branch holds regional forums that bring together key councils and engineers for information sharing and networking. This year, the team is working to move these online also.

“We are hoping to make the sessions interactive; they are smaller gatherings so conversations can be relevant and robust,” Ms. Binns says.

David Hallett, Executive Director of IPWEA Victoria, is also working to move events to an online platform.

“We are trying hard to maintain close relationships with our members, hosting teleconferences and inviting them to reach out for support. In fact, we know our young members are embracing the change with a weekly online happy hour,” Mr. Hallett says.

Similarly to his colleagues, Mr. Hallett sees this crisis as an opportunity not just for businesses but for IPWEA itself.

“The pandemic has thrown us into a new way of working which will in many ways prepare us for a new normal. It has forced us to learn about alternative methods of working and communicating. I think now is a great time to try some elements of training and development online to see if they work better than the current face-to-face options,” Mr. Hallett says.

“We already realised a lot of our members are very busy, everyone working in infrastructure is. Sometimes, as much as people wanted to network and do further training it was a challenge to make time.”

He says IPWEA VIC was already planning to develop more online content to sit alongside its face-to-face events, but the pandemic has accelerated this work.

“We have been pushed to find ways of delivering differently and that’s not a bad thing. For professionals lacking time, online learning is faster and more convenient and can be just as good or better than traditional methods. The challenge will be, when restrictions ease, to find the balance and re-establish the new normal,” Mr. Hallett says.

“This is a time for us to learn if these new online delivery methods are more valuable for some of the courses and events we offer. It is a good time to be experimenting with technology and trying new tools so that we can improve our offerings for the long term.”

Ms. Binns says COVID-19 has shown the strength of the population to be able to transform so quickly and settle into this new normal, while looking for opportunities.

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