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Interview with Kenny Heatley, Sky News


Event: Denita Wawn interview with Kenny Heatley, Sky News
Date: Monday 19 December 2022
Speakers: Kenny Heatley, host Sky News; Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia
Topics: migration; building and construction

Kenny Heatley, host Sky News: Australia’s construction industry is calling on the federal government to increase its skilled visa cap. Industry leaders want it to rise by 58,000 people over the next two years citing severe skilled labour shortages in the building sector. The industry has seen a sharp drop in activity due to labour shortages, interest rate rises and supply chain issues. And joining me live is Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn. Thanks so much for joining us Denita. So quite a few challenges for Australians in the building industry at the moment. Can you describe just how short are we in workers in the industry right now?

Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia: Thank you and good afternoon. Well, we’re very short. We’re estimating that the immediate need is around about 70-odd thousand workers but in the longer-term over five years it could be as high as 500,000 workers as we see retirements and people moving in other industries and so forth. I was only speaking to a mid-tier construction business the other day who said we desperately need 30-odd carpenters alone and this is a medium-sized business. So, it is acute. We know that unemployment is now still at 3.4 per cent. We’re having significant delays in the construction of buildings including homes. It normally takes about nine months to build a residential home, it’s now about 12 months. Simply because of the shortages of workers. So, we’re keen to see migration as part of the solution. Not the total solution but very much part of the solution.

Kenny: Is it a reason why we have shortages of workers at the moment is because people are leaving? How much of the shortage do you blame on Australia’s migration system?

Denita: It’s in part because we closed our borders for over two years, but we had a shortage before the pandemic. This is really an institutional, structural problem of the education system for a long period of time. Where vocational education and training was seen as the second-class citizen to tertiary education at universities. And so, we need to change people’s perceptions of working and needing a vocational education to look at trades as a pathway into a vibrant and very large industry. So that is why we’re focussing on our discussions with Brendan O’Connor as the skills minister, our work in encouraging women into the industry but we need significant change in perceptions of doing a trade that will be part of the solution. But equally, we need migrants, and we believe that the migration system has been too inflexible, too narrow in who we accept and as such the review that is being undertaken but the federal government is most welcome.

Kenny: You’re calling for an increase in the skilled visa cap from 142,000 to 200,000 places. How did you land on that number?

Denita: Well, it’s an estimation of the shortfall that we see as an immediate requirement in our sector but as I said that is just a partial solution. So, we believe we need uplift but we’re mindful of course of the processing that is required and the changes required to actually enable additional people to come into the country. So, we’ve done a conservative figure, we’d like to see more but nevertheless it would be a good start to resolve the problems we are facing at the moment. And we are not Robinson Crusoe many other industries are in similar situations, and they are all calling for changes to our migration system as part of the solution to resolve skill shortages across the country.

Kenny: Are other countries seeing a similar shortage in construction workers? And if so, how can we make sure that the construction workers come here instead of other countries overseas?

Denita: It’s a highly competitive market, you’re right. And certainly, what we need to ensure is that our migration system is competitive but at the same time making sure that we still have the skill focus on ensuring that we’re attracting skilled people to the country that meet those skill shortages. It is something that not only we as industry, but the government have to work more collectively to show that our borders are open that we won’t have a situation we saw over the last two years. So, people can come and go and visit their family. But also, we need to consider what countries and what requirements are for people coming into Australia. We have a very, very high standard of the English literacy for trade people which we think is too high which means we can encourage more people from a large number of countries where English is less prolific, if we able to make that more flexible. So, there’s a range of options before the government. We acknowledge that we need to maintain a strong skills focus of our migration system but we also need to make it more flexible and reasonable given the shortages we are now facing.

Kenny: Well according to government data there was a backlog in September of close to a million visa applications. Now the government said last month they were on track to get that down to 600,000 by the end of the year. From what you’re seeing, are you seeing any improvement with that backlog being cleared?

Denita: It’s starting to improve but nevertheless it is a significant backlog and certainly we are hearing that people are still crying out for workers across the country at all skill levels. So it’s an improvement, certainly in the increase in backpackers coming back into the country is starting to actually assist us in terms of unskilled labour. But nevertheless, it’s early days and as such we think that it’s important that the government is not only focussing on that backlog but also looking at the recommendations that industry associations and other players like us have put submissions into the government review and act on those fairly quickly so we can resolve those shortages sooner rather than later.

Kenny: Just before I let you go Denita; I’m hoping to get your thoughts of another topic. You’re on the board of the Australia Day Council. The government is relaxing the rules around Australia Day Citizenship ceremonies so they can be held in the days prior or after Australia Day itself. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it is a good idea?

Denita: That’s a matter for government. They’ve made that policy decision, so I’ll leave it to them to comment on that.

Kenny: Okay but you don’t have a thought around whether, I mean the Coalition is saying that the government is laying the groundwork to abolish January 26 as Australia Day. Do you agree with the Coalition?

Denita: Well, I’m not here as a spokesman for the National Australia Day Council so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on those issues. The government has made their position clear and I’m sure the Council will act on that accordingly.

Kenny: Denita Wawn, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it.

Denita: Pleasure. Thank you.

Media contact:
Dee Zegarac
National Director, Media & Public Affairs
0400 493 071

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