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NBN: Morrow says skill shortages persist

nbn chairman Bill Morrow says his construction programme is facing a “huge” skills shortfall as it prepares to roll-out the FTTN and HFC components of the network.

“If I look over the next two or three years,” Morrow told a business forum recently, “we have a shortage of about 4000 people and I don’t know where we’re going to get them to be able to do this at this point without launching a massive retraining program to move people from other industries to come in.”

So the penny finally drops! The only thing at all surprising about this revelation is its belatedness. When the NBN was still no more than a gleam in former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s eye, the CWU was urging the then Labor government to build the issues of skills and training into its considerations.

That was in 2008, when the first Request For Proposals was issued. Seven years and a change of government later, the labour supply issue has not been successfully addressed.

Meanwhile the CWU continues to receive reports of use (and abuse) of 457 visa workers on a project that was supposed to drive job creation for local workers.

But there is more than short-sightedness involved here. The shortages Morrow has identified also reflect the structure and economics of this construction project with its multiple contracting layers all squeezing their margins out of those below them on the heap.

Who, in this system, is going to pay for training? And will those who are trained, either already or in the future, be happy to work for the rates on offer?

Morrow’s reference to a “massive training programme” suggests that government may be about to put in funding on a significant scale. It will still, however, have to recognise that skilled workers will want – and deserve – pay and conditions more favourable than those that are now commonly on offer if Morrow’s problems are to be solved.

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