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Interview with Libbi Gorr, Disrupt Radio


Event: Interview with Libbi Gorr, Disrupt Radio
Date: 11 June 2024, 8.15am AEST 

Speakers: Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia 
Topics: Skilled migration; labour shortages 


Libbi Gorr, Disrupt Radio Host: The latest data indicates that 1.18 million Australians are directly employed in the construction industry, equivalent to about one in 10 jobs across the economy. And yet, we’re still having trouble getting houses built. In fact, it was only last week when a draft proposal was released about who we would be importing as skilled migrants that the Master Builders Australia came out and said, “how come we’re bringing in more yoga teachers than we are people who can build?” Denita Wawn joins us, she’s the Chief Executive of Master Builders Australia. Denita, that was a funny little news article about the yoga teachers and the builders, though we did look up and we could see that there were carpenters and electricians that were involved in that are being imported.  

Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia: Yeah, the list is around about temporary migration. And there is a bizarre quirk in the list going carpenter and joiner, but not carpenter by itself or joiner by itself.  

Libbi: Ahh. 

Denita: Other trades that are also in shortage are also not on the definite list. Yet, yoga instructors for example, are on the list, and yet the yoga association is saying that we have too many yoga instructors, that not enough people are getting enough work. So, there is some bizarre decisions that have been made by Jobs and Skills Australia that does not reflect reality on the ground. 

Libbi: That’s bizarre. So, you have to be a carpenter and a joiner? That would be like having to be a yoga teacher and a Reiki instructor like to qualify. 

Denita: Yep. Got it in one.  

Libbi: So, is it just carpenters and joiners or are there other bizarre connections or combinations that have to be fulfilled? 

Denita: Yeah, no, certainly, it was good to see that electricians are there, for them to electrify the country, that electricians are there. But a huge number of trades weren’t on the definite list. 

Libbi: Like what?  

Denita: A good example, relates to roof tilers, for example, critical when we’re building a house that you’ve got a roof. The plastering is another good example. So, a lot of those finishing trades and specialist trades that we need to complete a home. I don’t know if people realise that 40 trades are required to complete a home. And as such, if you don’t have all 40 of them working in sync together, as quickly as possible together, then the home takes a lot longer to build and therefore is more costly. So currently, a detached home taking about 13 to 15 months to build, when on average, it was taking about nine months. And most of that is because of a shortage of trades. High-rise is even worse. Pre-COVID, took two years, it now takes three years to build a high-rise apartment. And a lot of that is due to labour shortages. 

Libbi: And so the labour shortages, in particular in what areas? From personal experience, I would have to say brickies? 

Denita: Yep, always short of brickies, they’re also on the maybe list. And we’ve got every basically every single trade has been deemed by the Department of Employment and Skills, and also Build Skills Australia – which is an agency of government – all trades, every one of those 40 trades that currently have to build a home are on the shortage list. And that is why we say you need to focus on training more Australians as the first priority. But then also we need to supplement that with skilled labour from overseas. We proudly represent 25 per cent of our workforce are migrants, and has been like that for decades. And we need to continue that tradition of ensuring that we find opportunities for new Australians. 

Libbi: Tell me, do you think Australia respects the trades? 

Denita: Simple answer is only when they need it. It’s been really disappointing to see, decades in the making, that university is seen as the priority, that trades are treated like second class citizens. And yet, I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of people that are very successful, trade qualified individuals who have done very, very well for themselves and are very happy with their career. We don’t give enough respect to trades. And certainly, one of the focuses, and attention that we need to provide at the moment, is providing our young school leavers, their parents and career advisors at schools more information about the opportunities in trade. 

Libbi: So, should trades be therefore lumped in with small business in that many traders are their own business? 

Denita: Absolutely. So, in our industry alone, there’s about 450,000 businesses. Ninety nine per cent of them are small to medium sized businesses and nearly 250,000 of them are sole traders. They are more by definition nearly, trades are small businesses in many circumstances. They like being their own boss, they like running their own business, they like to be able to provide that work life balance, in terms of determining their own working hours, and so forth. So, we see ourselves as an organisation representing, by and large, small businesses, except for that small cohort of larger businesses that are also in the mixture by membership as well. So huge opportunities, whether you want to be your own boss or work for somebody else. We know we’ve got to build an awful lot of homes, an awful lot of buildings, and an awful lot of roads, and so forth. So, now’s the time for people to be looking seriously at the trades. 

Libbi: Denita Wawn is the CEO of Master Builders Australia. Tell me Denita, what are the major challenges facing the Australian construction industry in terms of these skilled worker shortages? How are we going to get them? 

Denita: Yeah, how are we going to get them? Well, as I said earlier, it’s really important that we encourage Australians into the industry and part of the problem that we’ve faced, and it’s of our own making, is that 14 per cent of our workforce are women. And when you only attract predominantly one gender, then you find a situation where you’re having extreme shortages of labour in the current climate. So, we’ve got to do a lot more around attracting people generally to the industry, but we also need to be attracting the whole of the potential workforce, not just half of them. So, we’ve been doing a lot of work with our program, Women Building Australia, about encouraging women into the sector. But also, we need to encourage businesses to ensure that they are worker friendly, and particularly female friendly. So that is a big focus of our attention at the moment. We will also need to look at retaining people, we have about eight per cent of the workforce leave each year. Part of it is because of retirements, but also part of it is leaving for other industries. So, we’ve got to focus more on retention. We’ve got to get a lot more apprentices and the government is looking at apprentice incentive programs at the moment. And then of course, we’ve got to look at skilled migration as well. We’re competing with Canada and the UK at the moment, they have far easier, simpler, less expensive programs for skilled trades people. And so, we’ve got to match up on our immigration system to make it easier. Doesn’t mean to say we’re going to dilute the skills, the skill levels we need, that’s still really important that we shouldn’t make it so difficult.  

Libbi: Well, from what you’ve been saying, we’re just making it very difficult for people with the skills to come in. 

Denita: We are unfortunately, and even those who are in the country that do have the skills, it’s cost them up to $10 – 15,000 to get their skills assessed, it takes over 12 months and it’s very costly also to undertake skills training to meet gaps. I don’t know about you, but I’ve met an awful lot of taxi drivers and Uber drivers who would love to be working in the industry, but don’t have the cash to ensure that they’ve got the appropriate skills recognition. And it was great that the federal government in the budget actually has recognised that, and given some money towards people, towards helping people in those circumstances. So, we’ve got to make it a lot easier, we can’t lower standards, but nevertheless, we’ve got to make it a lot easier for skilled migrants. But also, we’ve going to make it a lot easier for people who want to take an apprenticeship as well. 

Libbi: Yeah, and give them the skills and the business acumen in order to be able to carve out their own path within their profession.  

Denita: Absolutely. Spot on. It’s really important not to just have those technical skills, but those business skills as well.  

Libbi: Thank you so much. Denita Wawn, let’s talk again. 

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


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