Feb 19, 2019

Opinion Piece – ‘Labor will tackle rail industry shortage skills’ – Track and Signal Magazine – Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The old saying goes that every dark cloud has a silver lining.

As we enter 2019, after five years of Coalition Government, inadequate infrastructure investment, particularly in passenger rail, is threatening Australia’s economic productivity.

There’s a significant infrastructure deficit – a dark cloud that must be addressed in the national interest.

But with this challenge comes an opportunity to address another looming problem – the significant shortage of skills in the rail sector.

The Australasian Railway Association recently commissioned research by BIS Oxford Economics that highlights the extent of the problem.

It found that training of train drivers, controllers, track workers, signalling engineers and technicians, maintenance workers, electrical technicians and tunnellers is not keeping pace with growing demand.

The challenge is further complicated by the ageing of the existing workforce and the emergence of new technologies that require new skills not previously required in rail.

The research warns that by as early as 2023 we may have a workforce gap of up to 70,000 workers.

This will not only slow down progress, but also drive up prices as projects fight against each other for scarce labour.

It’s already the case that states within the Commonwealth are aggressively attempting to poach each other’s workforces.

This situation is the end result of poor long-term planning by governments and a reduction in investment in training and skills development by both government and industry.

It’s an indictment on the current Federal Government, which is failing to meet one of industry’s key requirements – skills development.

If Labor is privileged to form a government after the forthcoming Federal election, we will create a Strategic Rail Workforce Development Forum to deal with the skills shortage.

It will be tasked with developing strategic responses to the skills issues facing the industry and building productive working relationships across the industry and with TAFE and other training providers.

The resulting skills development strategy will not only aim to boost the national training effort, but also to ensure that the training is fit for purpose.

If we get it right, there’s potential to not only meet our national needs but also develop exportable high-end skills and technology.

The forum will come in addition to Labor’s existing plan to create a National Rail Industry Plan, designed to build capacity for the construction of rolling stock required for the many rail projects that will be built in Australia in coming decades.

Sourcing rolling stock offshore is an easy option. It is often cheaper than building in Australia.

However, Governments must always remember that when you buy offshore, you are also sending jobs offshore, eroding the national skills base and working against the innovation.

Decisions about procurement need to take account of the economic damage caused by allowing erosion of critical skills.

Skills shortages are also a problem in other transport sectors.

For example, the nation faces a shortage of aviation maintenance engineers because airlines increasingly send aircraft offshore for maintenance.

It means that over time, our nation is losing another skills base – this one central to public safety.

A Labor Government will restore the critical balance between saving money and preserving skills.
This piece was first published in the February-April edition of Track and Signal Magazine.