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By Louise Morrisey
November 5, 2017
With all the talk of Australia’s construction boom, it becomes easy to laser-focus on the bigger players in the game: large corporations that are reaping the many benefits of a skyrocketing property market or new government policies rapidly changing the skylines of our cities.
At a grassroots level, however, the construction landscape paints a different picture. Jobsite spoke exclusively to Sam Pearson, owner of Plumbwell Plumbing in Sydney, on the various challenges faced by sole traders and small business owners in the construction trade in Australia today.
Taking the Plunge on Plumbing
Pearson has more than twelve years of experience as a certified plumber and plumbing business owner, working across public and private development across New South Wales. One of the biggest changes he has witnessed is the way plumbers gain their plumbing qualifications, and the impact this has on the trade industry.
“New private companies have been established to replace the traditional plumbing course at TAFE, which takes six years,” Pearson notes. “Instead of tradesmen being educated by experienced and qualified educators, they are now paying to be walked through a significantly shorter private course, which results in the same plumbing qualification.”
In reality, that means there are a lot of tradespeople who are ostensibly ‘qualified’ on paper, but in reality less skilled than those who undertake the right amount of training.
Apprenticeships have long been an important part of the process to becoming a qualified tradesperson. However, figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) showed that in 2015-16, the number of Australians beginning an apprenticeship slumped by almost 20 per cent, with experts noting this as a ‘worrying’ trend.
Despite this fall in apprenticeship uptakes, Pearson notes the positive effects new technologies and tools have had on the apprentice undertaking over the past decade.
“The access to information, that is the access to plans, site specifications, hydraulic drawings, and product information has improved due to apps, the Internet, and files available on mobile devices,” he says.
“There’s also a new ease in the work thanks to crimped fittings. Now plumbers are able to put together a water or gas service without having to weld—provided you have the right tool. This takes about 80 per cent off the time it would usually take to weld, and it’s safer because there are no open flames or carcinogenic materials produced.”
A one-sided benefit: The gig economy
Mobile apps with a focus on construction jobs, such as Hipages and Airtasker, have contributed to a shift in perception about tradespeople in Australia, according to Pearson. The popular apps, which contribute to a phenomenon known as ‘the gig economy’ (the concept of providing people with cheap and convenient services on a freelance and ‘as needed’ basis), have had a different kind of impact on qualified tradespeople.
“In my experience, trade apps are of benefit only to a customer,” says Pearson. “What often happens is jobs are going to be quoted below a fair trade price, which means you’re probably going to get a below-par tradesman doing the work.”
This has a knock-on effect of giving customers a false idea of true industry prices, Pearson says.
“It also means good, experienced tradespeople have to start lowering their prices to be competitive, changing the expectations around industry standard set-pricing.”
In Pearson’s opinion, this contributes to a vicious cycle of underpayment and the use of unskilled labour and a poorer standard of workmanship. With all the rezoning occurring across Australia, particularly in Sydney where Pearson operates, the speed of small-medium density apartments being constructed, combined with an increased use of unskilled labour, leaves a lack of accountability for buyers.
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