“We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard”: why we should care more about construction skills

Not enough of these fellas. Image: Getty.

On the 19 February 1879, construction began on Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. On 28 July 1923, it was the turn of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

These dates are recalled, because people mark such beginnings. We make them visible. Ribbon-cutting, sod-turning, plaque-mounting – ways to say to stakeholders, this starts now: it will be money well spent. This project will move us forward.

We make growth visible too. We count cranes in year-quarters, with September’s report showing a record-breaking five hundred plus propping up the skies of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone.

Yet what of the critical human component to all projects – skills? How do we mark the achievement of acquiring a workforce able to deliver some of the most complex infrastructure projects in the world? What visible measures do we have to show there is present-day skills capacity or that we will meet future demand?

The Consult Australia 2016 Skills Survey is one such tool – but the fluctuations it shows suggest more visible indicators are needed at a much greater frequency. It shows more than two thirds (69 per cent) of large consulting firms working in the built environment now express concern over a nationwide skills shortage, compared to 8 per cent just two years ago. Over half of all large firms are struggling to recruit civil, traffic, and structural engineers too, rising to 75 per cent and 81 per  cent in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

The reality is that, whilst we marvel, applaud and celebrate the visible in the built environment, we often neglect the invisible, and fail to plan for future skills demand. We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard.

The survey also shows it is currently taking firms two years to fill mid-level roles compared to approximately two months in 2014. Only 46 per cent of large, medium and small firms are very optimistic they will find the skills to compete over the next three years.

This gloom is in part caused by boom – this year, economic growth in New South Wales and Victoria, is estimated to be 6.1 per cent and 6.4 per cent respectively. Heavy investment in public infrastructure and construction has led to demand outstripping supply which in the short-term is resolved by recruiting migrants on Section 457 visas. Collectively, these skilled professionals maintain Australia’s economic growth. Individually, they contribute spend whilst adding social, cultural and educational value.

Longer term the solution is different. Most state governments have joined Infrastructure Australia in producing long-term infrastructure plans, critical for the alleviation of rollercoaster fluctuations in supply and demand.

It is only by mapping out predicted growth and anticipated projects, by undertaking gap analyses and working backwards from future date 10, 20, or 30 years from now, that there can be an appreciation of the scale of the challenges and opportunities ahead, and an appropriate strategy can be developed. To paraphrase ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky, it is about skating to where the puck is going not to where it has been.

Without a long-term strategy, debate around Section 457 visas will continue to be politicised, zooming in on short-term retrospective data, when it needs to zoom out, be contextualised and part of a long-term conversation about what skills Australia needs to sustain economic growth.


Challenges around gender imbalance, with most firms in the Consult Australia survey employing less than a third (29 per cent) of women, would continue without targets in place to ensure cities are shaped by both genders for both genders.

There would be no framework for state or territory plans to feed into as per the national “Infrastructure Skills Plan”, referenced in the Infrastructure Australia Plan released earlier this year.

Yet as with all long-term plans, it is essential to provide short-term visible outcomes to maintain strategic direction, and aid those, notably politicians and shareholders, who work in shorter cycles.

This is why it is critical there is a concerted effort to make visible the people-part of built-environment projects. Promote the foundation stone but promote too graduates of the foundation course who laid it; gather local and national media for sod-turning but gather more for corner-turning as a company hits the 50 per cent female recruitment mark; unveil a plaque that on this day this project began, but also unveil your team, the people who will make it happen and the challenges faced to bring them together.

Make skills visible, make scarcity or abundance known – and help push for a strategic approach to future skills development in Australia.

Kevin Keith works for built environment body Consult Australia. The 2016 Consult Australia Skills Survey is available here. He tweets as @KevKeith.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.