Amidst the rubble of a lovely old house in Balmain, builder Michael Simitzis is busy with his team of men sawing, drilling and measuring. At times, he steps in to advise and direct one of his apprentices but mostly, the group just goes about their business.
But just months earlier, the builder was faced with the difficult task of letting a young apprentice go because his literacy, numeracy and communication skills were so poor that he was incapable of working on site.
“It was the same old story every day – we struggled to communicate with him, we couldn’t teach him anything,” says Mr Simitzis who has worked in the industry for 28 years. “It seemed to rub off on his punctuality and frustration for him as well.”
Of the 12 apprentices he’s had over the past 15 years, he says all but three have struggled. “They go to TAFE and they struggle,” he says. “They realise that their mathematics is subpar, their basic English skills, most of them even struggle with basic communication skills so it’s frustrating for us because we struggle to teach them anything because their foundation of learning is just not there.”
“You seem to find a lot of young guys that are attracted to the trade are young guys that are struggling at school,” he says.
Mr Simitizis’ dilemma is part of a broader industry alarm that poor literacy and numeracy means apprentices cannot be filled. The numbers of people starting apprentices has been in slow decline for years, and while the September 2013 quarter saw a slight increase to just over 27,000, the industry is concerned about the long-term impact of a shortage of skilled tradespeople.
“Every apprentice we don’t have, is another one we don’t have in future capacity to grow the workforce, to grow the jobs to ensure the economy improves over the coming two or three years,” says Nick Pround from the Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council.
“If we haven’t got the basic skills right at the fundamental level of leaving school, we are just going to see it continuing through their adulthood. We are seeing that with reports which show that 53 per cent of adults have problems with numeracy,” he says.
Large businesses are also being impacted. The $6 billion Barangaroo development in Sydney currently runs WELL, a federally funded literacy and numeracy program for some 130 workers who have been identified as having problems in those areas.
The shift away from manufacturing in Australia means many unskilled workers have limited job opportunities, and according to Brad Parker from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, these people need assistance. “We need to have that strategy in place to make sure those kids that need the extra support, the funding, is available there,” he says.