Features, Welding

Radical approach needed to overcome skilled welder shortage

Weld Australia estimates that, unless action is taken now, Australia will be 70,000 welders short by 2030, writes Geoff Crittenden.

Weld Australia estimates that, unless action is taken now, Australia will be 70,000 welders short by 2030.

This urgent issue is not unique to Australia; the US$5.5 billion US fabrication industry will face a shortage of 500,000 welders by 2030. By 2050, Japan’s demographic downturn will result in a 50 per cent loss in their welding workforce; Japan will need around 250,000 welders. In the United Kingdom, BAE is having trouble recruiting enough welders in Glasgow to keep the Type 26 Frigate project on track.

This global shortfall of welders is driving most developed nations to implement extraordinary measures to resolve it – Australia must follow suit.

Statistics from the ABS demonstrate that the number of tradesmen identifying as welding trades workers fell from 83,400 in 2012, to 75,800 in 2014, and again to 69,600 in 2019. Weld Australia estimates that the total is now less 60,000. It is also important to note these individuals ‘identify’ as welders – they are not necessarily qualified welders. Weld Australia suggests that less than half of these 60,000 individuals have completed an apprenticeship, or are otherwise suitably qualified.

Clearly, Australia does not have the welders to deliver the nation’s critical energy, defence, rail and infrastructure projects. Access to the global supply chain for fabricated steel products will be a high-risk, expensive proposition. We will be unable to deliver on the Federal Government’s promises, like renewable energy targets.

Australia’s transition to renewables will necessitate the manufacture of thousands of wind towers and transmission towers, solar panel structures, hydrogen plants and battery processing plants, as well as thousands of kilometres of transmission lines. All this will require a highly skilled workforce, including thousands of qualified welders.

While our governments can wish, and hope, and make public pledges about funding for Australia’s transition to renewable energy and other major infrastructure projects that create jobs, we simply do not have the sovereign manufacturing capability to make this a reality.

We need a practical, actionable plan that can be implemented now to overcome the welder skills shortage – not political posturing and promises that cannot be kept.

Weld Australia is proposing a four- pronged approach:

  1. A radical overhaul of welding apprenticeships
  2. Tapping into hidden sources of talent
  3. Refocussing STEM training in schools
  4. Investment in TAFEs nationally

A radical overhaul of welding apprenticeships

The current welding apprentice system is typified by limited resources and patchy employer training. Graduates are often unable to pass a welding qualification, such as AS/NZS ISO 9606 Qualification testing of welders – Fusion welding as required by industry. This demoralising learning experience, when combined with the length of the course, encourages students to opt out of training.

The existing Certificate III in Engineering (Fabrication) is a nominal 720 hours of face-to-face teaching at a TAFE interspersed with practical experience in the workplace via an apprenticeship. This is spread over three years.

Weld Australia proposes that the current course is condensed into one year. The existing training package will remain unchanged but will be taught in two 24-week blocks consisting of 14 weeks of face-to-face training, and 10 weeks of Structured On the Job Training (SOJT) in the workplace.

As is currently the case, the SOJT Training Plan should be individually designed to meet the needs of the apprentice and their employer or Group Training Organisation. However, each apprentice will be allocated an Apprentice Manager to ensure the training is completed to the required Standard. This process will be audited by the appropriate authority.

Once an apprenticeship is complete, competency will be assessed and the Certificate III qualification awarded. Graduates will then be required to qualify to ISO 9606, the internationally recognised standard for welding competency.

The shorter course will be less daunting to school leavers and will encourage mature aged applicants. Training will be more intensive and is therefore likely to be more efficient. The number of apprentices graduating should increase, and the skills of welders should increase dramatically.

Skill sets: tapping into hidden sources of talent

A change in Australia’s immigration quota may offset the skills shortage but it will not solve the problem.

To resolve the welder shortfall, we must tap into often unrecognised sources of talent by offering a learning pathway to those who feel estranged from the skilled employment market: the long term unemployed; women; Indigenous Australians; those completing prison sentences; people transitioning from carbon-based industries; and others.

An analysis of people identifying as welders indicates that less than 50 per cent have any formal welding qualifications. Clearly, there are a significant number of welding jobs that require a skill set (practical competence) without necessarily having the full range of trade skills.

Skill sets are ideally suited to upskill the workforce by providing an internationally recognised certificate of competency. Furthermore, Skill Sets provide a clear pathway to an apprenticeship for mature-aged workers.

Weld Australia has had significant success in offering skill set training – based on existing Units of Competency in the Certificate III in Engineering (Fabrication) – to disadvantaged Australians. This training ultimately leads to employment as a welder.

Weld Australia proposes that a series of courses covering basic welding skill sets are funded and included in the scope of all Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) that teach welding.

Refocussing STEM Training in Schools

It is critical to the future of industry in Australia that STEM training in schools be refocused to showcase the opportunities in trades and encourage women and other underrepresented groups into careers in STEM.

Weld Australia has been working with the New South Wales Department of Education for the past three years on an Advanced Manufacturing School Outreach Program for schools. Over 50 augmented reality welding simulators have been installed in 25 high schools and used to help students develop an understanding of welding in a completely safe and controlled environment.

The results have been amazing. Children of both sexes have been engaged in the learning and the feedback from students and teachers alike has been outstanding.

Weld Australia proposes that the Advanced Manufacturing School Outreach Program be rolled out nationally.

Investment in TAFEs Nationally

Weld Australia suggests the certificate for Fabrication could be condensed into one year.

Whilst free TAFE initiatives have been successful in increasing the number of students entering VET, course completion and skills distribution outcomes remain unclear.

It is imperative that sufficient investment be made in the TAFE system to ensure that it is a world class technical teaching organisation capable of meeting Australia’s demand for skilled tradespeople.

Funding for welding courses at TAFEs across the nation is woefully inadequate. As a result, many TAFEs do not teach the full range of welding courses, and those that are taught suffer from inadequate resources. Funding must reflect the cost of infrastructure, equipment,
time, and materials required to teach to internationally recognised Standards.

To offset costs, Weld Australia recommends that resources are focussed on regional Centres of Excellence (CoE) equipped with the latest simulator technology for teaching hand and robotic welding.

TAFE and industry need to work together to facilitate the employment of experienced, qualified Welding Supervisors and Welding Inspectors to act as practical trainers, without the need for a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.

This is the only way to meet the increasing demand for high- quality teaching staff. Furthermore, investment should be made in skills- based professional development and nationally accredited learning and assessment resources.

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