Massive skill shortages in WA's rail construction industry
Five years ago, Metronet was the pipe dream of a West Australian Opposition keen to present itself as a visionary alternative government.
Today, as the McGowan Government prepares to issue tenders for two Metronet projects — and keeps a tight rein on spending in other portfolios — the proposed rail network is the cornerstone of its policies.
The first stage of the project — $4.75 billion in works — includes almost 72 kilometres of new rail line, as well as the Forrestfield-Airport rail link.
But as the project gains momentum, questions are being raised about whether WA has enough workers with the right skills for the mammoth task ahead.
Stiff competition for workers
The scale of rail developments planned across Australia's capital cities is immense.
Nationally, there are 10 major rail projects, either proposed or under construction, valued at $1 billion or more.
The largest of these, Sydney Metro, will be a $20 billion-plus investment in more than 66 kilometres of new rail line.
Sydney is also building two light rail lines — one in the CBD/South East and the other in Parramatta — which will add another $2 billion of construction work.
There are also major works underway in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, in addition to regional rail upgrades and the $10 billion Inland Rail from Melbourne to Brisbane.
WA will struggle to attract 'rail talent'
Each of these projects poses competition for Metronet, which at its peak is expected to need more than 3,000 workers.
"We simply are going to struggle to attract the rail talent and the civil infrastructure talent generally — civil project managers, designers and engineers — to Western Australia," Chris Kent, state regional director of Hays Recruitment, said.
During the mining construction boom, WA drew hordes of interstate and overseas workers to highly-paid jobs in the Pilbara, but Mr Kent cautioned that was unlikely to be repeated.
"The east coast was really struggling [at that time]. We were able to take all of the good people out of Melbourne and Sydney," he said.
"We got a lot of people from the UK and this time around it's a little bit different, we've got a lot more competition."
Figures from employment website Seek show job advertisements for rail workers in WA have been rising for the past two years.
In the 12 months to June, rail jobs grew by a whopping 43 per cent.
Skills shortage to create pricing pressure
For Rail Systems Australia, the signs of a pending skills shortage have already emerged.
Eighteen months ago, the company — which specialises in rail signals and telecommunications design — set up its headquarters in Perth, as a subsidiary of Titan ICT Consultants.
Managing director Tom Warner said it was challenging to attract and retain workers in WA, given the strong competition for labour from interstate.
"There is a competition for salary, a competition for people. I think, as a consequence, it'll have an impact on pricing and costs here in WA," Mr Warner said.
"We're lucky in our skill sets and our disciplines that we can transfer across different sectors, so the mining and oil and gas sector.
"Some of our engineers are equally capable in the rail sector, so that's a plus for us."
Skilled workers to be lured back
But not everyone in the rail industry believes there will be a major labour squeeze.
Chris Chalwell is the executive chairman of Railtrain, the parent company of rail maintenance and construction services provider RMC Rail.
He predicts there will be a flight back to rail from other industries, as latent labour within the WA economy is soaked up.
"I think people are forgetting that there are many, many highly skilled or skilled rail employees doing other things now," he said.
"A lot of these employees were there building the Pilbara and other areas only five to seven years ago.
"We'll be able to retrain those people, bring them back from driving the trucks back into rail."
Bulk contracts to target squeeze
Despite these assurances from industry, the WA Government says it is adopting "creative procurement approaches" to thwart any labour shortage.
For instance, two Metronet projects — the Thornlie-Cockburn Link and Yanchep Rail Extension — will be put out to tender as one package of work.
The aim, according to the Government, is to create sufficient scale to attract specialist workers and ensure the construction jobs are retained over a number of years.
Within the rail industry, companies are taking matters into their own hands, with Rail Systems Australia launching a graduate program.
"That's a key for the next five years, to be able to build-up the quality people to be able to support us and grow together," Mr Warner said.
And while migration laws have changed since the iron ore construction boom, offshore workers may also be targeted.
"Obviously there's some quality people [overseas] and depending on the specific skill sets needed for the projects, I expect there'll be a need to bring some of those resources across as well," Mr Warner said.
"[These skills] are in high demand around the world, so it's going to be a challenge for everyone."
Construction tenders for the Thornlie-Cockburn Link and Yanchep Rail Extension will be released in the coming weeks, with short-listing due to be completed by the end of the year.
Emily Piesse - ABC News