Event: Denita Wawn interview with John Stanley, 2GB Nights
Date: Monday, 16 January 2023
Speakers: John Stanley, host 2GB Nights; Denita Wawn CEO Master Builders Australia
Topics: building and construction; migration; skills
John Stanley, host 2GB Nights: Now there’s a few things that I want to raise tonight because if you watched the news earlier tonight you would have seen we have had a jobs boom. We’ve got record low unemployment. We’ve got a record number of people who are going into jobs over the last 12 months and yet because of that tight labour market people are struggling to find workers and you hear this story everywhere right across the board. I have for instance a friend of mine; there’s a service station being renovated across the other side of his house and he’s saying to me ‘why is this taking so long?’ And I’m only assuming this is part of the whole business of finding people to do this work. It is a massive, massive issue and in home building, in construction, not just home building, any sort of building, you’ve got to find the people to do the work. Now the Master Builders, well they represent all the areas of construction across the country. They’re talking about a real crisis at the moment. Denita Wawn is the chief executive of the Master Builders and joins us now. Denita, good evening to you.
Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia: Good evening, John.
John: Now look, have I given a reasonable summary there of where we are with this?
Denita: Yes, you have unfortunately. We were experiencing trade shortages pre-COVID and then the building boom through COVID. People spent more money on renovations and building as opposed to going overseas took hold. Things have got exceptionally worse. So as a consequence, despite everyone nearly having a job in Australia, we’re still very, very short and it’s a short-term problem but it’s a long-term problem as well.
John: I want to get to the nuts and bolts of it. So, you’re competing, so your business, you’re talking about people who can do a range of things but then how many other, where there are crossover skills it can become quite difficult can’t it trying to recruit people to do your work?
Denita: That’s right. I mean we are having the extraordinary stories coming through the industry at the moment that builders and tradies normally working on commercial sites are going to residential sites which is unheard of because commercial generally has always paid more than resi but the resi builders are desperate to get tradies in to finish those homes. A general house that normally takes about nine months to build at the moment is taking over 12 months and that is not just because of material shortages, that issues has abated, it’s now all about not having enough tradies. 40 different trades come onto a residential building site and normally you stack them in one after the after but you can’t do that anymore that’s for sure.
John: Okay so you might be… the reason that three-month extra time might be because you’ve got to wait a couple of weeks for a plumber or a sparkie or whoever it might be because they’re busy doing other work?
Denita: That’s right and of course everyone is competing. Prices are going up and that’s why when we saw the inflation figures last week building was leading the charge of cost increases. Nearly 20 per cent to increase of prices to the cost of construction at the moment.
John: So, when you see a site that’s taking a long time to get something done like my mate it’s most likely because they’re struggling to find people to do the work?
Denita: That’s right. Initially during COVID it was all about material shortages but that’s long gone behind us. It’s now all about people shortages. It’s as simple as that. And that’s why Master Builders has been calling for changes to migration and skilled workers in particular to try and resolve it in the short-term but the longer-term is more focussed on encouraging more young people into the industry.
John: Yeah, because I know we’ve got free TAFE this year so those skills are going to be able to be acquired presumably but that takes time doesn’t it?
Denita: It takes time and also the important thing is to recognise that while we are seeing an increase in people commencing trades, we are not seeing a corresponding increase in completions. We have only around about a 50 per cent completion rate for our trade which is simply not good enough. So, we need to concentrate all industry as well as educators on how we can get more people across the line. And then it’s going to need to find more mentoring and support. It’s going to need retention payments; it’s going to need more support to employers because if we don’t resolve this problem then it’s only going to get worse as we see the baby boomers retiring over the next few years.
John: Yeah, and I’m always intrigued by why beautiful regional areas, country towns can’t find doctors for instance to come and work in those towns where there’s plenty of work and it’s a great lifestyle. I guess the same would apply if you were a carpenter, you were a plumber, you were an electrician. You can go to some of these areas where I assume there’s a shortage. Some of these places might not have anyone able to do those jobs?
Denita: That’s right. We’ve got shortages across the country. This is not just a problem in capital cities. This is something that’s Australia-wide where we’ve seen massive delays in infrastructure and residential building simply because we do not have enough trades. And that’s why we are saying it’s really important that we look at great flexibility of people coming to this country. A good example is that we have way too high expectation on English language. That’s got to be more flexible. We need more homes in this country, but we haven’t got enough people to build them. So, we’ve got to sort this problem out to ensure that we can be more responsive as an industry but more importantly ensuring that we are housing all Australians.
John: See I can hear the response right now from people who are saying okay that’s one thing but if you’re saying bring people in so we can get more places built we then need more places built to house them?
Denita: That’s right. It’s a catch-22, isn’t it? We of course think it’s important that we encourage Australians into our jobs, but we know there’s simply not enough working Australians in the now or in the medium-term to meet all of the demand that we have facing the industry. And as such, we need to look at a number of different approaches. That includes training more Australians, it includes increased migration but it also for our industry we have not encouraged enough women into the industry and we’re very proud of our Women Building Australia program to get more women into trades. Only about two per cent of our trade people are female and that needs to increase.
John: That could significantly improve it. You mentioned English skills because in the end coming to Australia you are going to function better if you can speak English. So what do you mean when you talk about the English language skill element there and bringing people in?
Denita: Well, we’ve got a really, really high English literacy requirement at the moment for anyone. We think that needs to be reduced. Look at the amazing stories that people can tell everybody. All of those qualified people to help build the Snowy Mountains.
John: Of course.
Denita: And then what they then brought to building Canberra for example after that. So we think there’s an opportunity to reduce the really high levels of English language that people are required. People can learn here when they come to the country. We need people that want to contribute to the community and we don’t think we need to discriminate to the extent that we do at the moment when that comes to the English language requirement.
John: But they’ve got the skills to do the work immediately?
Denita: That’s right. We need to be focussed on skills, language could be learned.
John: Okay. Denita, good to talk to you. You have a big, big story, I think. I could probably get on to about half a dozen people from different industries who will be saying the same thing. You are all competing in the same way in that job pool.
Denita: That’s right. We’re not alone and this is a major issue that the country will have to face this year that’s for sure. Appreciate your interest, John.
National Director, Media & Public Affairs
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