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Interview with Phil Staley, ABC Far North


Event: Denita Wawn interview with Phil Staley, ABC Far North
Date: Wednesday, 18 January 2023
Speakers: Phil Staley, host ABC Far North; Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia
Topics: building and construction; labour market shortages; migration; skills

Phil Staley, host ABC Far North: Now if you’ve been trying to find a builder for a new house, maybe even a renovation or just a new shed. You might have noticed it’s been impossible to find a builder who’s free who can come around immediately and start. And you are certainly not alone if that’s you. The loss of international workers due to the global pandemic has brought labour and skills shortage into focus. There’s also a shortage of apprentices which means there will be less builders in the future. So why are so many people starting their apprenticeships in the building industry but then dropping out? Master Builders Australia’s chief executive is Denita Wawn who might be able to explain some of this. Denita, good morning.

Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia: Good morning, Phil.

Phil: Denita, when it comes to things like waiting times on building at the moment, what are those waiting times like right now?

Denita: They’re not great simply because we don’t have enough people to do the work and there’s been a massive upswing in demand as people stayed in their homes and didn’t travel over the last two years. So, for example an average house usually takes about nine months to build, it’s not taking over 12 months. And that’s simple because of the forty-odd trades that you get onsite in a residential construction site. We simply are not able to program them as quickly as we used to because we are the whims of our availability. So, it is frustrating not only for the builders but of course the clients as well. And it is unfortunately adding costs for everyone. And so, there’s that frustration that we are seeing this massive escalation of building costs in Australia at the moment.

Phil: Yeah, right and kind of like a perfect storm isn’t it? The demand peaks just when the labour is not there. We should just take a quick moment and point out if you’re talking to a builder, don’t get up them. They are doing their best. They are trying to handle this. But what we are seeing is apprentices not finishing their apprenticeships. What do you put that down to?

Denita: Yes, it’s always been confusing as to why we have such a low completion rate. The average for a trained apprenticeship is around about 50 per cent of those who start, complete. And that’s simply not acceptable if we are going to meet the needs of the future, as you said in the outset. So, the question is why? There’s a number of reasons at the moment. First and foremost, if you have had a couple of years of apprenticeship under your belt, you are a strong commodity and people are offering you large sums of money, much more than you ever get as an apprentice, to go out into the workforce regardless of the fact that you’re not qualified. Now they are not necessarily doing work that requires them to be qualified but they have got strong skill sets. So that’s one of them. The other issue is some people don’t realise the amount of work that is required under an apprenticeship. Particularly third and fourth year. The requirements in terms of completions, particularly your maths component, is difficult. So, there are a variety of reasons. So, the question for us really is focussing on ensuring we provide as much support as possible to apprentices to ensure that they do in fact complete their trade. But also encouraging more people to consider it and that’s why we’re running things like the Women Building Australia program that is focussing on encouraging women into trades. Only two per cent of our trades are women and we think that is also one unacceptable. So, it’s a variety of things that need to be attacked from both the training stakeholders as well as the industry itself.

Phil: Right. On one hand I suppose a lower wage for an apprenticeship has probably been a challenge for the industry I imagine. But I suppose if we look forward to the next decade or so it really is a challenge across all industries for you to address this isn’t it?

Denita: It is, and we acknowledge that sometimes people thin an apprenticeship wage is unattractive but at the end of the day you are being trained. And as someone who went through university, it would have been nice to have got paid while I was doing my training. So, an apprenticeship is about a wage because you are being somewhat productive while you are training on the job. But you are not totally productive. And also, a lot of people don’t realise that if you are training an apprentice it takes the trainer on-site off productive work and that’s why we were really supportive of the employer subsidies in encouraging more apprentices during the pandemic. We hope that continues. Particularly in encouraging employers and the apprentices to work out those important final two years of their apprenticeship and how they can stay on the job. So, it is something that we’ve got to focus our attention on. We are getting a lot more people starting but not enough completing.

Phil: My guest is Denita Wawn, the CEO of Master Builders Australia talking about apprenticeships right now. What about material shortages right now? Very much out of your hands to control but how do you see that evolving in the next two to three years?

Denita: Yeah, material shortages were at extremes during the pandemic as we had a shutdown of international borders and shipping delays, significant shipping delays, as well as production delays in countries like China. That has calmed down somewhat but the prices are still high. But what the pandemic did do, in those product shortages, it really focussed on where we get our materials from and are we prepared for the future. So, a great example was timber. We recognise that we did not have enough structural time to meet demand and we know we’ve got to build an awful lot more houses to house all Australians at the moment. And so, where are we going to get that structural timber that is also really important from an energy-efficiency perspective as well. So, we are spending a lot more time more to the medium to long term policy solutions now on how are we going to get our products. Is there more focus on production and manufacture in Australia as opposed to relying on overseas.

Phil: And Denita Wawn many industries would report on agriculture and things like that saying that they could benefit greatly from international travellers and workers coming to help and improving the situation. Does that apply to Master Builders’ situation?

Denita: Yes, it does. I mean for us it is always vital that we focus on encouraging as many Australians as possible into our industry and hence some of the programs such as Women Building Australia. But nevertheless we know that this country needs more skilled workers that we can’t meet in the short-term through Australians here. So, we do need to focus on skilled migration. There is currently a review being undertaken by the federal government into skilled migration and we have said we need to not only bolster the numbers, but we also actually need to focus on greater flexibility on people coming through. It takes forever and costs a fortune for trade qualified people from overseas to have their qualification recognised in Australia. We have exceptionally high levels of English language competency both written and verbal that we think needs to be dialled down a little bit for certain types of jobs. So, we are very appreciative of the fact the federal government is undertaking this review to look at not only the numbers but also how we attract people into this country.

Phil: Right. Finally, Denita Wawn. If someone is looking at getting a new house now and as we’ve said there’s no point ringing and abusing a builder who can’t do it straight away. Do you have advice if we were going about it what we might do?

Denita: Well, it’s important you do your due diligence in terms of the quality of the builder and of course we would encourage people to look at a Master Builder. But it’s important to be patient and to work with the builder and understand the pressures that builder is under. And acknowledge that in terms of the timeframes that you’ve developed. We appreciate that for clients a lengthy contract means more money for them to rent out while they are waiting for their home and so forth. So, it’s a matter of working with the builder, being patient, but we do know that the building approvals are coming down. So, we think this problem that we will experience in 2023 will start actually dwindling down and being more reasonable by 2024.

Phil: Well, that’s what we like to hear, good news. Alright. I really appreciate your insights this morning and good luck going into the year.

Denita: Appreciate it. Thank you so much.

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

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