Opinion piece published in The West Australian 25/01/2023

UDIA WA chief executive TANYA STEINBECK believes getting the right skills to WA is critical the the housing crisis

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Just as many scientists have differing opinions on the answer to this evolutionary conundrum, many experts have opinions on how we solve our own evolutionary drama of attracting more skilled workers to WA with not enough housing to put them in. So, what needs to come first? The housing or the workers?

The building stimulus was more than welcome in early 2020 off a five-year market downturn and the looming prospect of the pandemic further crushing the property industry’s ability to support the State’s economic growth and employment. However, the subsequent unprecedented housing construction boom has led to an industry struggling to keep up with demand even three years on.

More than just a short-term boom, we are looking down the barrel of a longer-term housing supply crisis, as our population expands and housing stocks remain depleted, with rental vacancies at record lows.

This housing shortage is a long-term, systemic issue that has been decades in the making and is not just isolated to WA. We urgently need to get the right skills here to deliver the housing we require now and into the longer-term pipeline. This is critical to keeping a lid on affordability. In our recent State Budget submission, UDIA WA called on government for a Construction Workforce Attraction Strategy for Perth and the regions, and the negotiation of a Skills and Labour Agreement for the construction industry.

The State and Federal Government’s 12-month skills agreement to inject $112 million into the WA skills and training sector to provide fee-free TAFE and more vocational education places for WA is welcomed. However, attracting and retaining interstate and overseas migrants will continue to be critical in the immediate and longer term. Why? Because whether we like it or not, we are all getting old. Not just here in Australia, but in our traditional source countries where we would entice our skilled workers from such as the UK and Europe — they are getting old too. So instead of putting all our eggs in those baskets, we need to look to other countries where they have a younger, skilled population to draw from. The issue is in some of those countries, construction skills and their associated local licensing or training systems are not currently recognised.

It’s also difficult to get student visas for trades. This is another opportunity to increase our intake of young, skilled construction workers. The good news is the Federal Government has almost completed a review of our migration system with the report for release shortly, which we hope will address these opportunities. However, it will take some time for that egg to hatch.

In the meantime, why not negotiate a construction labour agreement between key WA construction employers and the Federal Government (as exists for horticulture and hospitality) as a short-term solution?

Last week, the Department of Home Affairs issued 35,000 invitations in the skilled independent visa category — great news! Now we need qualified tradespersons to lodge an EOI and choose to come to WA. How do we do that? That is what a focused construction workforce attraction strategy needs to address. A labour agreement could be a good first step.

The chicken or the egg is a somewhat false dichotomy — you can’t have one without the other — so is the answer to our skilled workers or housing first question. If I had to choose today, I’d put my eggs in the skilled workers basket.

For more thoughts on this topic, check out our upcoming Industry Breakfast focusing on Rebuilding the WA Construction Workforce and highlighting How WA can win the global war for talent.