Like every industry across the globe, Australia’s welding industry is feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to feedback from Weld Australia’s members, the key challenge being faced across the industry is a shortage of labour, from Welding Supervisors and Inspectors, right through to welders. Finding competent, skilled, experienced welders is becoming more and more difficult.
Welders are more in demand than ever with several large-scale, high-value projects on the horizon, from the Federal Government’s $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Program, through to major infrastructure projects such as the $12 billion Sydney Metro project, and the $5 billion Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
And yet, the number of welding trade workers in Australia dropped by 8 per cent in the course of just five years; from 75,800 in 2014 to 69,600 in 2019. In addition, completion rates of welding apprenticeships, including a Certificate III in Engineering (Fabrication Trade), continue to fall by as much as 23 per cent annually.
This shortage of welders has been exacerbated by a lack of short-term workers and immigrants, with our international borders closed due to COVID-19. Members have reported that there simply isn’t the same labour pool available to complete work.
The skills of the future
This skills shortage is not a problem that can be resolved in the short term. Weld Australia is working on several initiatives designed to bridge this skills gap. One initiative is innovative STEM programs in high schools that expose students to the opportunities offered by a career in welding.
STEM skills are crucial to the changing nature of work. Digital technology is now a part of our everyday lives, and is impacting the world of work in ways never experienced before.
According to the Federal Government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment, it’s predicted that future workers will spend more than twice as much time on job tasks requiring science, maths and critical thinking than today. It’s vital that Australia keeps pace with technological change to advance its economy and prosperity.
Attracting and retaining younger talent while they are at high school, and then through engaging, well-funded training and apprenticeships is critical to combatting the severe skills shortage.
Our young people need to acquire complex, high order technical knowledge and skills. They need robust, deep and transferrable qualifications that provide a strong base for life-long learning and skill development. Kids need STEM skills.
We need a vibrant STEM program implemented across schools nationally so that children and parents alike understand the opportunities available—the future of employment in industries like welding is not hard, dirty work carried out in a dark workshop. It’s focused on IT and programming skills, using robots and co-bots, and implementing Industry 4.0 concepts.
Innovative STEM programs in high schools
One way to combat the lack of understanding around STEM career opportunities is through innovative STEM programs in high schools.
In June 2020, the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Training (DET) commenced a pilot program to teach welding to students in Years 10 to 12 studying Manufacturing and Engineering, and Industrial Technology. The program utilised cutting-edge training techniques, including the use of 32 augmented reality welding simulators and innovative teacher training delivered by Weld Australia.
Based on the success of the pilot program, NSW DET ordered a further 20 simulators to be rolled out across another 10 high schools in regional NSW. Weld Australia is working with the Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania Governments on similar STEM programs.
Women in welding
An added bonus of the STEM program is that the use of augmented reality welding simulators encourages girls to try welding. Currently only 1 per cent of welders are women. If this could be increased to 10% it would go a long way to ameliorating the impending skills shortage.
To this end, Weld Australia is participating in a Women Who Weld Program facilitated by the Queensland Manufacturing Institute (QMI). The Program aims to increase gender diversity and participation in manufacturing careers. It provides the opportunities for female high school students in years 10, 11 and 12 to gain insight into trade skills and career pathways, including local employment opportunities.
Another innovative welder recruitment program in which Weld Australia is involved is Indigenous Welding Australia—a partnership of Weld Australia, the Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium (IDIC) and IPS Management Consultants. It was formed in 2018 to establish a national network of Indigenous Welding Academies focused on delivering welding training backed by specialist pastoral care: ‘For Indigenous people by Indigenous people’. Graduates of the program will be placed in employment with defence primes or local industry through our Indigenous partners. Our principle industry partner is BAE (Shipbuilding).
There is no question that STEM education and careers advice must be improved. But industry cannot continue to rely on Government to solve the problem. There also needs to be a ‘pull’ strategy that engages students through close collaboration between schools and companies.
Weld Australia member, Precision Metal Group (PMG) is strong advocate for this type of ‘pull’ strategy. In 2020, PMG began partnering with Parramatta Marist High School to develop a metals and welding program. The program is fostering STEM skills so that students are better prepared to contribute to Australia’s rapidly growing advanced fabrication and manufacturing industries.
The shared vision is to have more and more students exposed to the industry, and certified as armoured vehicle welders before they graduate from Parramatta Marist, providing them with pathways supported by a skill set in demand by the Australian Defence Force. To begin, Year 10 iSTEM students rotate through fortnightly two hour welding core skills workshops, while self-nominated students undertake intensive welding training at PMG’s facility in Wetherill Park.
Australian welding and fabrication businesses need to invest in the future of their own workforces and play an active role in the training of welding apprentices. Australia will need an additional 28,000 welders by 2030 based on the existing pipeline of work. Industry has a vital part to play in filling these roles. Industry needs to spend more time developing apprentices—it’s no good expecting kids who have only just finished TAFE to be welding experts.
TAFE Welding Curriculum
With these program gaining traction in the recruitment of new welders, welding curriculum at TAFEs must concentrate on the skills that will be essential to the future of industry. These skills must be focused on advancements such as automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, and advanced manufacturing processes. It is these skills that will see Australian industry continue its push into high-quality, complex manufacturing.
As such, Weld Australia is working with the National TAFE Consortium on creating a set of national resources mapped to the national MEM training package, so that learning resources for trade students are consistent across the country. This will help ensure consistent training, regardless of where in the country students undertake that training.
The new resources are completely online and accessible via phone, mobile device or computer. This will allow students to access learning at the time, place and pace that suits them best. We are very excited about the project and are already seeing some great results.
Technical training is absolutely key to the future prosperity of Australia. Australia’s capacity to deliver major projects relies heavily on our ability to train highly skilled tradesmen and technicians who are qualified to deliver the projects. TAFEs, the curriculum they teach, and the learning resources that have access to, play a crucial role in this.