The COVID-19 pandemic is proving an impetus for wide and deep changes in the way business and government operate.
Chances are, you weren’t thinking it should shake up the government procurement system here in Australia. Nor that there might be a place for digital traineeships. But in terms of construction, both could well be on the cards.
First, About Procurement
It's one thing to invest public funds into ‘shovel ready’ projects, but how do we ensure we maximise the potential benefits that come from this spend? Ideally, this sugar hit to help get out of this pandemic-induced recession should benefit Australia far beyond the mere completion of selected projects.
I got to thinking more about this after reading a recent Sydney Morning Herald story quoting former Future Fund chief David Neal. He took the magnifying glass to the construction sector (a personal interest of mine, particularly construction tech). Neal says there must be a “better way” for Australia to “do” major construction projects.
He suggested mega projects be carved up rather than all the work going to global players who can afford Canberra lobbyists. Neal is keen for a change to the existing government procurement system to ensure local and medium-sized firms get a bite of the cherry, too. Right now, they’re effectively locked out of the mega projects.
Neal’s approach makes sense. Australian construction firms are in it for the long term, committed to our country and to the assets they build. Actually, these are the same goals of our superannuation funds. If we get the procurement system right, they will invest keenly.
Let’s Quantify This
The IFM and Industries’ Super Property Trust plan to invest $19.5B to create 200K jobs.
And there are “shovel ready” projects waiting in the wings. Just in my home state of Victoria, there’s $525M getting pumped into upcoming infrastructure projects, road upgrades and construction jobs. Over that hard border to NSW, there are plans to fast-track a $4.3B tranche of projects, creating more than 8,400 new jobs, reports Infrastructure magazine. We’ll find out by the end of August on those ones.
That’s about $5B of projects shovel, and I argue, ‘click ready’. You guessed it, that’s where construction tech and traineeships come in.
Innovation thrives in these large complex projects, and it will be created by these local companies and the construction tech companies with whom they ‘touch elbows’. This is innovative tech we can export … this is Australia’s digital path to prosperity.
London’s Lord Mayor Sadiq Khan gets it. He’s called for investment in construction jobs and tech to get London building again. He’s even created a construction academy and is openly encouraging skilled overseas workers through post-Brexit visas. Meanwhile, UK companies themselves are actively pushing digital construction apprenticeship roles that are helping to deliver projects more efficiently and profitably.
Such apprenticeships leverage the latest software platforms. Those platforms manage digital supply chains, create 2D/3D drawings for both construction and operations phases, help the project comply with industry standards such as BIM and even turn plans into virtual reality.
Here in Australia
Our federal government’s Digital Transformation Agency has a digital apprenticeship, but I think it’s time to seriously consider a new focus on construction. Through the JobTrainer skills investment program, the federal government is offering to train or re-skill job hunters in areas of high demand. As we know, the program includes an extra $1.5B to subsidise apprentices’ wages and will boost training places by 340,000. We absolutely need the traditional trades, but let's also open the door to a new type of apprentice in the construction tech industry.
Bringing all the pieces together. The investment in construction has the potential to help bring us back from the economic consequences of COVID-19. However, we need to maximise the opportunity. So, let’s change the way we procure to give local companies the chance to benefit and innovate. Alongside this, we need to arm them with a workforce that is ready for the future through targeted digital construction apprenticeships.
What's the risk if we fail to meet this challenge? Beyond profits going overseas, we will suffer a ‘brain drain’ to countries such as the UK and miss out on a construction tech boom that will deliver economic benefits far beyond the projects we complete.
Let’s make our ‘shovel ready’ projects ‘click ready’ and, in the process, support our local, innovative business while underpinning them with the next generation of construction workers.