Upskilling the infrastructure industry

Roads & Infrastructure Magazine looks at the role major training hubs and initiatives play in upskilling Australia’s infrastructure industry and where the key challenges and opportunities are.

Complete with a replica tunnel, three multi-purpose engineering workrooms and training facilities – not to mention tunnel shaft and concrete lining spray simulation – Melbourne’s proposed $16 million tunnelling training centre sounds like an ideal location to learn the ins and outs of tunnel construction in Australia.

In August last year, the Victorian Government announced the new tunnelling centre, to be located at the Holmesglen Institute’s Drummond Street campus in Chadstone and modelled after the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy set up as part of London Crossrail.

The state anticipates that by 2021 up to 5000 students will participate in trainee courses at the new centre each year, helping up-skill thousands of local workers required to build some of the state’s major transport infrastructure projects.

With works underway for the West Gate Tunnel and Metro Tunnel projects, as well as the North East Link, Melbourne Airport Rail Link and Suburban Rail Loop on the horizon, the provision of such training centres may very well set the standard for training and upskilling in Australia’s infrastructure sector.

But Victoria is not alone in its quest to empower local labour through such training centres based around major projects. In February this year, the Western Australian Government announced its intentions to transform the Midland TAFE campus into a specialist training facility to equip locals with the skills to build METRONET projects.

Specifically, the proposed METRONET Trade Training Centre will provide a specialist training hub that provides the technical and support skills for railcar manufacturing and METRONET maintenance.

Likewise, the NorthConnex Training Hub, set up as part of the $3 billion project in New South Wales, was established to help develop and upskill the labour in the civil construction market required for the project and beyond.

With myriad training hubs being established alongside major transport infrastructure projects around Australia, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine seeks to understand the key benefits they bring as well as the other opportunities and challenges out there in ensuring there is enough skilled labour to build Australia’s infrastructure future.

Building the Metro Tunnel

MetroHub – a project-specific employment, training and industry connection centre for the Metro Tunnel Project’s tunnels and stations package – is one such centre at the forefront.

Launched in July last year by Victorian Minister for Industry and Employment Ben Carroll, MetroHub is a centre for providing career pathways, industry training and employment opportunities on the Metro Tunnel.

The centre is a partnership between the project’s tunnels and stations contractor CYP Design and Construction (CYP D&C) – a consortium comprising Lendlease, John Holland and Bouygues Construction – and Holmesglen Institute.

MetroHub Manager Lexie Walter says the centre facilitates a full project induction, construction induction white card training and other project-required accredited training.

“It provides upskilling opportunities for people working on the project, from entry level training certificates through to advanced leadership and development courses,” Ms. Walter explains. This includes the support for the project’s subcontractors and suppliers through sourcing candidates and providing training.

The training hub also places emphasis on opportunities for priority job seekers by working through partners such as Holmesglen’s Skills and Jobs Centre, Whitelion, CareerSeekers and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

“More than 500 apprentices, trainees and engineering cadets working on the project will study and train at MetroHub in programs designed to support the development of young people looking for a career in construction,” Ms. Walter says.

For instance, its Professional Pathway Program is a partnership between CYP D&C, Holmesglen and Whitelion – an organisation that works with youth at risk – with quality training provided through Holmesglen Institute. It provides young people with pathway traineeships in business. As part of this, trainees also receive life skills training, employment, personal and study support to provide them with an opportunity to develop
a career.

Ms. Walter says work is also being done through the Holmesglen Skills and Jobs Centre to prioritise ex automotive industry workers to transfer their skills into relative roles on the Metro Tunnel project.

Likewise, MetroHub’s Cadet Program supports local university students to build a career in construction and engineering. The cadets spend their summer and winter university breaks working with CYP D&C gaining on-the-job experience while receiving training and support through professional development and coaching.

“To date, CYP D&C cadets have worked 140,000 hours, gaining practical on-the-job experience and giving their career a head start while they complete their university studies,” Ms. Walter explains.

Overall, more than 3500 people have already been inducted on the Metro Tunnel project, including more than 400 apprentices, trainees and cadets with MetroHub playing an important role.

Ms. Walter says the centre has conducted 4700 training events (or 18,000 hours in training) and more than 270 priority jobseekers have worked on the project
to date.

“MetroHub is playing an important role in upskilling the next generation of construction and engineering professionals through providing pathways onto the project, and training and career development,” Ms. Walter states. “It also supports people wanting to upskill, advance and retrain while working on the state’s biggest ever infrastructure project.”

Empowering the next generation

Tanja Conners, Executive Director Knowledge and Partnerships at Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA), says major training hubs are an excellent way to upskill the industry to deliver these significant transport infrastructure projects, and similar structures and systems need to extend to other parts of the pavements and civil construction sector. “One of the biggest issues we face at the moment is a skills shortage and how we can bring new people into the market instead of rotating old blood from job to job,” she explains.

Transferring knowledge and expertise to the next generation is the key here, she adds, but doing so on the job is vital, and needs to occur across the industry not just on major projects.

She says large organisations in the sector can provide great pathways for their staff and the training hubs on projects especially help workers from other sectors move into the industry; however, there needs to be consistency across the board.

“Everyone wants skilled people, but more often than not they’re unwilling to pay to train them.” What ends up happening is that all the knowledge and skills a business has is kept internally. “Companies are working to avoid those time penalties on projects, so they want people who can drop in and do the job straight away. But this means that at the end of a project a younger staff member might only come out with shovel and broom skills, without having had the opportunity to learn about other facets of the organisation.” Ms. Conners explains.

Part of the challenge in upskilling the civil construction and flexible pavements sector, not only lies in appropriate training and maintaining a high level of industry skills and knowledge, but also showing a sustainable, enjoyable and prosperous career path.

“What needs to be done to actively get them into the industry is for Australia to adopt the same sort of training system that Germany has,” Ms. Conners asserts.

She says the German system gives those opting not to attend university the opportunity to go to technical college where students are able to spend a significant amount of work experience with an industry organisation, rotating through different parts of the business as part of that process.

“They’re not just out there holding up a road sign, they’re seeing all different aspects of the organisation and industry through their work experience. You’re coming out of work experience not just having handled a broom or shovel,” she says.

“There are a lot of career pathways available, even through that traditional way of starting as a labourer and working up through to management, and then even on to graduate accreditation.”

Some organisations in the industry are taking up the challenge themselves, including an AAPA member company in Western Australia. “They started looking at reintroducing their own training scheme – working with a school and technical college. One day a week the students go through a few related subjects at the technical college on bituminous surfacing and civil construction. Then they go on to do work experience with the company during the school holidays,” Ms. Conners says, adding that 13 students have already gone through the first round of the scheme.

Similar initiatives are being developed across the sector, that aim to help bridge that skills gap in delivering these major projects, especially those that don’t have a dedicated training hub.

Debbie Reynolds, Director – Industry Initiatives & Engagement from RMIT University’s School of Vocational Engineering, Health & Science, is leading the development of a new initiative to get people work-ready for projects in the civil construction and pavements industry.

The Victorian Government-funded project aims to move away from the idea of qualifications. Rather, it’s about getting unemployed people “work ready”.

“The state is going to have to upskill an enormous amount of people so we have enough people employed in major projects across Victoria,” Ms. Reynolds explains. “Right now, most of these people aren’t going need to be trained in full qualifications, but the challenge is about getting them work ready.”

The initiative is earmarked for a pilot launch in mid-2019 to coincide with major infrastructure construction works ramping up in Victoria in 2020, including on the Metro Tunnel.

The project is targeting those interested in moving into the pavements and civil construction space, including those transitioning their skills from another industrial setting.

A group of candidates would be selected for the program and continue to the next stage of training, which involves achieving accredited units and means they also have a pathway towards a graduate qualification. Once complete, the successful candidates will then go through to an interview-type process to make sure they’re prepared to enter the industry with the skills they need to succeed. “The end game is getting them into a job,” she adds.

To help ensure candidates in the program can eventually find employment, Ms. Reynolds says discussions are underway with industry partners and building interest around the scheme, particularly with organisations in the flexible pavements and civil construction sectors, including AAPA.

Besides the big-name infrastructure projects like the Metro Tunnel, Ms. Reynolds says there is the question surrounding other infrastructure works taking place across Victoria and Australia and the skilled labour that is required to deliver it.

“Even when the projects end, they need to go somewhere, so we still offer a pathway from an education perspective. We want to ensure participants have an educational pathway as well as an employment outcome. They may want to continue into an apprenticeship or into higher education and complete a bachelors degree from doing those early accredited units,” Ms. Reynolds explains.

She says now is a really crucial time for investment in upskilling Victoria’s labour market at volume, particularly with the number of major projects underway or commencing across the state. “It’s a trial for the Victorian Government too. They’ve recognised a real need for this, which is why they’re funding the training component of it – they understand the need for these projects, especially in the future.”

Related stories:

  1. Midland TAFE to become METRONET training facility
  2. Training hub hits major milestone
  3. New training hub for Western Sydney projects
Interesting? Share this article