“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.

 
 
 
 

How collecting food waste could slow climate change – and save us money

Cleaning up. Image: Getty.

Food waste is a global problem, and one that’s driving climate change. Here in the UK, the country’s biodegradable waste goes to a landfill, where it breaks down to produce methane, a gas that is roughly 30 times as bad as carbon dioxide.

And yet there’s a simple solution. With the exception of garden waste, which often contains lignin from woody matter, all biodegradable materials, including much of our food waste, could instead be processed in anaerobic digesters. This decomposition in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen produces biogas, which can then be used to generate heat and electricity.

This is more or less the same process that takes place in landfill sites, except that the biogas can’t escape from an anaerobic digester as it can from landfill – meaning the breakdown of the organic matter takes place in an environment that is enclosed and controlled.

The result is biogas consisting of 60 per cent methane and 40 per cent carbon dioxide, which can be burnt in order to generate heat or used as a fuel for vehicles. It could also be used to generate electricity after the biogas has been scrubbed, which can then either power the anaerobic digester or be exported to the national grid. The process also produces digestate, a solid and liquid residue that can be returned to farmland as a soil conditioner. The amount of biogas and the quality of digestate varies according to what feedstock is used in the digester.

This process is already widely used both across Europe – particularly in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria – and elsewhere globally, particularly in India and Thailand. What's more, this move towards separate food waste collection is already happening in countries outside the UK, and its momentum is increasing according to the World Biogas Association. Already, major cities, including New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, San Francisco, Mexico City and many others are regularly collecting food waste from their citizens. The decisions to do so are usually taken at city level, but enabling legislation from national governments assist in this.


At present the UK is lagging behind. Only 109 local authorities in England, about 33 per cent of the total number, collect food waste as of May 2018, according to the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA). Yet making a separate food waste collection mandatory across the UK and running the food waste through anaerobic digesters, could supply enough biogas to generate 36 per cent of UK electricity, according to a 2007 Friends of the Earth report. This percentage could be increased again if food waste from restaurants, cafeteria and retailers was also collected. 

ADBA’s research also suggests that universal separate household food waste collections would trigger the construction of around 80 new anaerobic digester plants for food waste processing. This would add an extra 187 megawatts equivalent (MWe) of capacity, powering 285,000 extra homes – representing all the homes in a city the size of Glasgow. Data from WRAP suggests that further food waste collection from businesses would add around a further 10 per cent, depending on the quality of the feedstock collected and what exemptions were applied (for example, it might only apply to businesses collecting more than 50 kilograms per week or the lower threshold of 5kg).

A 38 per cent improvement in food waste collection from flats in Ealing alone could generate £26,000 of annual savings for the London borough, £28,000 in revenue for a local anaerobic digester (based on electricity sales to the national grid) and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of around 270 tonnes, found Londoners Lab, a collaborative project consisting of Greater London Authority, University College London, Ferrovial Services Centre of Excellence for Cities and Future Cities Catapult.

ADBA has been campaigning on this issue for a while, but the good news is that the government finally signalled its intention to introduce separate food waste collections in its forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy, which will ensure that all homes and suitable businesses in England will have access to food waste collections by 2023. The next step, following the government announcement, is a consultation, but it is widely acknowledged that additional funding would be needed by local authorities to achieve this, as the business case isn’t currently strong enough.