VET apprenticeships and future of social housing construction

In responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian economy, a diverse range of voices have called on state governments to fund social housing projects. But what is social housing, how can it help drive post-COVID-19 economic recovery and how does this relate to apprenticeships?

Social housing has been a significant feature in the development of many cities and nations for centuries. Largely, this had to do with major consequences of the Industrial Revolution which, beginning in England, saw an influx of new workers from the regions to the cities, leading to the growth of urban slums as accommodation failed to keep pace with rapid population growth.

Public and political outcry about a situation growing out of control demanded a response. Throughout Europe, a common solution was housing provided to the poor through charity from wealthy individuals and families, reducing slum populations and ensuring workers were sheltered in more hygienic conditions. Another model saw industrialists providing workers housing adjacent the factories in which they spent their days producing the materials and machines that developed societies.

Later on, governments began to appreciate the contribution of social housing provision to solving the often-overlapping issues of public health, poverty, homelessness and unemployment. In many jurisdictions, local governments provided housing agencies with the authority to build public housing complexes while improving shared infrastructure in cities. Experiments in the USA and Europe during the early twentieth century employed this strategy, but it wasn’t until after World War II that public housing featured as a major component of rebuilding economies and societies throughout the world.

The modern concept of social housing as we understand it today is based in subsidised housing owned by government agencies or not-for-profit organisations. This housing is provided at affordable levels of rent to either low-income earners or as part of broader social policy programs to address homelessness and other socio-economic problems.

Just like private housing developments, construction industries play a key role in the building of social housing dwellings and so they are at the centre of delivering such projects. In Australia, construction employs over 1.15 million people with a 10 per cent rise (118,000 jobs) projected by 2023.

Positioned at the centre of a growing national population and economy, the construction industry in Australia presents enormous opportunities for construction-based trade apprenticeships and traineeships. A great range of construction industry-based opportunities begin with VET pathways, with qualifications from Certificate II to Advanced Diploma levels are available in the Construction, Plumbing and Services (CPC) Training Package.

For individuals undertaking training in CPC, the construction industry presents enormous demand for skilled workers that get their start in VET, including some of the most visible occupations like Building Surveyor, Construction Project Manager, and Crane Operator as well as some of the behind-the-scenes ones like Air Conditioning Technician and Concrete Pump Operator.

Of course, construction projects often begin with the destruction of old buildings and other obstacles to new construction – this is where more niche occupations like Demolition Site Supervisor and the Demolishers they supervise are a particularly specialist in nature.

Based on AATIS’s own calculations of data obtained from NCVER’s Student Outcomes Survey, 90 per cent of construction industry graduates in 2018 were employed after completing their training and the average commencing salary was approximately $60,000. Solid early income levels and high job security reflect the great employment opportunities construction work can provide to prospective apprentices.

The CPC Training Package has been delivering high demand for qualified construction workers through traineeships and apprenticeships all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. Now, social housing construction projects over the next decade will further increase this demand and provide enormous opportunities to young people looking to get their start in a construction industry career.

Social housing in Australia has for decades been an important feature of inner-urban populations, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where multi-storey towers in postcodes like Redfern, Surry Hills, Fitzroy and Richmond often stretch above neighbouring dwellings. These developments have sought to integrate diverse socio-economic communities, provide accommodation to new immigrants or refugees and ensure that vulnerable communities are housed close to community and health services. But increasingly, social housing is becoming a feature of broader metropolitan and regional areas, addressing issues of urban sprawl, population density and regional growth.

Over the course of 2020, social housing has made the headlines in Australian media for issues arising from high-density social housing in urban developments becoming hot-spots for the spread of COVID-19 and because of the way that this has put the spotlight on years of neglect of vulnerable social housing communities and the way governments have not maintained pace in supply of social housing with the demand from the community to address numerous socio-economic problems.

Thankfully, several Australian governments have now announced huge plans to take advantage of post-COVID-19 economic stimulus measures by committing to new social housing builds – some of them, unprecedented in their scale and potential impact.

On 16 November, the Victorian Government announced a $5.3 billion social housing construction project that will continue to 2027 and lead to the construction of 12,000 new dwellings, with 25 per cent to be built in regional Victoria. The Big Housing Build will deliver an average of 10,000 new jobs pear year over the next four years and construction will represent a ten per cent increase in social housing stock in the state.

The project will see government partner with the private and not-for-profit sectors to deliver a range of unique housing developments that includes upgrades and maintenance to existing dwellings as well as the replacement of older public housing estates with modernised housing and facilities.

The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) has commended the government’s Big Housing Build project, stating that “the long-term social and economic benefits of this investment will be immeasurable” and that for people experiencing social and economic hardship, it means that “with a roof over your head, you can overcome all the other challenges more easily.”

Also in November, the NSW government committed $80 million to its ongoing social housing projects for the training of about 300 building trainees, with social housing tenants being encouraged to apply for employment that will cover both urban and regional projects.

With an aim to transition people out of long-term welfare via training, trade qualifications and stable employment opportunities, this program will seek to involve people in social housing in developing skills and experience through employment on projects to increase social housing stock.

As the NSW government’s social housing build is part of its broader economic stimulus package, this initiative will help to meet industry demand for apprentices in that state’s construction industry.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the provision of social housing helps to alleviate the factors that often combine to keep individuals in cycles of poor social and economic circumstances. A social housing construction boom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will not only help to remove more people from these precarious situations but drive huge levels of opportunity for training and employment in the construction industry.

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