Nation needs skills to bust traffic jams

Katina Curtis, AAP Senior Political Writer
Australia needs a lot more skilled workers to build the infrastructure for a growing population

You could practically hear the groans from commuters across the country at the news the cost of congestion could double in the next 15 years if nothing is done.

That's just what Australians need: more time wasted in traffic jams and overcrowded trains and buses.

And the nation's infrastructure gurus have warned there needs to be at least $200 billion committed to the nation's roads, public transport, utilities, schools, hospitals and so on every five years if we're to have any hope of getting on top of the problems.

But, as Infrastructure Australia's boss said when releasing the report, traffic jams and overcrowded public transport are just the most visible aspect.

The problem is complex and a skills shortage is a big part.

You can promise hundreds of billions of dollars for as many congestion-busters or transport "mega-projects" as you like, but you still need someone to build them.

And once you've found enough people to plan, design and build all the roads and railways needed, you need people to drive the trains, work the signals, and maintain the facilities.

"At all levels and for all types of infrastructure, access to appropriate skills is a problem," the Infrastructure Australia audit states.

Or, as Napoleon Dynamite kinda said, we don't even have any skills - truck driver skills, engineer skills, surveyor skills, tunnelling skills, electricity linesmen skills.

It's a combination of factors: unprecedented levels of construction (but levels Infrastructure Australia says will have to be the new normal), an ageing workforce and dropping numbers of young Australians starting a career in these areas.

Take the railway workforce, for example.

Demand for skills across all areas, from drivers to signalling technicians, is expected to rise by more than five per cent over the next five years.

But at the same time, 20 per cent of rail workers are expected to retire.

The latest figures on apprenticeships show the number of people starting training is the lowest in two decades and completion rates are also at long-term lows.

And it's a trend. Commencements have been dropping since about 2012, and completions declining since 2014.

Labor says the federal government should invest billions of dollars in the nation's TAFEs as well as its roads and rail.

"We've got 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees today than when Labor left government," education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said.

"If you lock people out of education, you are locking them out of a job."

Infrastructure Australia noted the lumpy pipeline of big projects, saying it "hinders the ability of industry and government to manage workforce capacity and skills effectively".

It singles out the Sydney Metro project as a good example of planning ahead for workforce needs.

The NSW government worked with TAFE in the state to start training workers for the driverless rail line ahead of its construction.

When it announced the specialised infrastructure skills centre back in 2017, Sydney Metro anticipated more than 500 entry-level employees would be trained there over five years in courses tailored to address critical skills gaps.

Political leaders are not deaf to all these warnings.

But the pace of action can be slow, particularly when all players in the federation need to get on board.

In its answer to the calls for action on the skills crisis last week, the Council of Australian Governments essentially decided to plan to have a plan.

The Business Council of Australia has been campaigning for nearly three years to boost the standing of training, calling for universities, TAFE and vocational education to be put in the same policy and funding bucket.

A good sign now is the rhetoric Prime Minister Scott Morrison is using around rebuilding confidence in vocational education and encouraging people to see it as a genuine option.

"TAFE is as good as uni," he declared.

"I want mums and dads to be confident about the choice of their kids for a trade, for a technical or skills-based education. It is not second prize."

Community attitudes must change if Australia is to have enough workers with the skills to build all the roads, rail and other infrastructure he's promised to get people out of those traffic jams.