Combatting Australia’s skills shortage by unlocking women’s workforce participation

Australia is facing a critical shortage of skilled workers. To combat this shortage, it is essential that women’s workforce participation is increased, according to Weld Australia.

New economic research released recently by Chief Executive Women has found that increasing women’s participation in the paid workforce would address Australia’s current skills shortage and have long-lasting impact on productivity in Australia.

The analysis, conducted by Impact Economics and Policy, shows that unlocking women’s workforce participation could fill job vacancies and address critical skills shortages predicted between now and 2026.

The report finds that halving the workforce participation gap between men and women would represent an additional 500,000 full-time skilled workers with post school qualifications. Job vacancies hit a record 423,500 in February 2022.

Engaging women in paid work at the same rate as men could unlock an additional one million full-time skilled workers in Australia. The National Skills Commission estimates the need for 1.2 million additional workers across the economy by 2026.

Gender equity and diversity in the construction and manufacturing industry workforce is a persistent problem that exacerbates skills shortages, reduces economic productivity, and constrains innovation.

In fact, women account for less than one per cent of Australia’s overall welding and fabrication sector. This is a staggering statistic. To put this into perspective, on average, women comprise 48 per cent of Australia’s entire workforce.

Encouraging the participation of women in male-oriented industries such as construction, manufacturing and welding is long overdue in ending the cycle of employment disparity, gender pay gap, and representation of women in management positions.

The research released by Chief Executive Women demonstrates that investing in well-paid, secure jobs, expanding the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave scheme, making early childhood education more affordable and accessible, and making workplaces safe from sexual harassment were key to getting women into work. All these measures must be implemented by both our governments and private industry.

Weld Australia has long been an active advocate for the participation of women in the workforce, particularly in male-oriented industries like welding. In a post COVID-19 world, Australia’s economy will not recover unless we combat skills shortages, particularly in our industrial, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors. The only way to do this is to broaden our labour pool by attracting women into trades such as welding.

We need a proactive, targeted approach that engages and recruits women into the trades, new and innovative trade training programs designed specifically for women, and measurable gender diversity targets set by the federal government.

The Australian government has projected that, to 2024, the number of job openings for structural steel and welding trades will be above average. In some states, advertised vacancies have shown substantial increases over the last few years; Queensland has seen welding trades workers vacancies increase by 87 per cent, Western Australia saw vacancies increase by 80 per cent, and Victoria saw an increase of 18 per cent.

And yet, the number of welding trade workers in Australia dropped by 8 per cent in the course of just five years; from 75,800 in 2014 to 69,600 in 2019. In addition, completion rates of welding apprenticeships, including a Certificate III in Engineering (Fabrication Trade), continue to fall by as much as 23 per cent annually.

Australia will have a shortfall of at least 27,000 welders by 2030. Industry is already at capacity. Weld Australia’s members are turning away work because they cannot find enough welders to complete the work.

With experts forecasting a critical minerals mining boom, welders will be even more in demand. From lithium, cobalt, manganese, tungsten and vanadium, through to high purity alumina and silicon, Australia is home to the minerals inputs required for strategic applications like semiconductors and electrification. These critical minerals are essential for defence, aerospace, wind farms, electric vehicles and battery storage. This mining boom will necessitate vast infrastructure — processing plants with structural steel, pipelines, and pressure vessels—all of which requires welding.

With Australian industry already desperate for welders, how will this extra demand be met?

A global perspective

This skills crisis is not unique to Australia. By 2023, the United States is predicting that their workforce will need an additional 375,000 welders. To put this into perspective, that is equivalent to the size of the entire welding workforce in America as of 2019. Similarly, in a recent report released by the European Commission, welders and metal workers rank third on the list of occupations with the greatest workforce shortage.

The situation is much the same in Asia. For instance, according to data released in late 2021 by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 58 of the 100 occupations with the largest shortage of workers were classified as manufacturing roles, including welders. By 2025, the total number of skilled workers in 10 key areas of China’s manufacturing industry will be close to 62 million, with a talent demand gap of nearly 30 million — a 48 per cent shortfall.

Even with international borders opening post-COVID, immigration is not the answer to Australia’s welding workforce crisis. There is no magic pool of international welders from which to draw on — this is a global skills crisis.

Increasing diversity in the workplace

Increasing diversity in the workplace is possibly the best way to alleviate the skills shortage. Every effort needs to be made to encourage women to become welders.

Weld Australia is already working on an innovative program designed to increased workplace diversity — a program that starts in high school.

Last year, Weld Australia proposed an Advanced Manufacturing School Outreach Program to the New South Wales government. The Program received their support, with funding provided through the Department of Education’s Vocational Education and Training Program for Secondary Students.

Over 30 augmented reality welding simulators were deployed in a pilot program in 16 schools across the state. The schools ranged from the Wagga Wagga, Lake Illawarra and Dapto high schools in southern New South Wales, to the Gorokan and Kurri Kurri High Schools in the Lower Hunter region. Based on the success of the pilot program, the NSW Department of Education ordered a further 20 simulators for another 10 high schools in regional areas including Bathurst, Cobar, Bourke and Broken Hill.

This engaging, exciting learning technology provides a very safe and efficient way to teach students skills in a profession where there is high demand. The program encourages participation in STEM learning from a young age — for girls and boys alike. While this is a long-term solution, rather than a quick fix, this program is focused on actively recruiting more women into trades as early as possible. Weld Australia believes this invaluable program should be rolled out nationally.

There are many advantages waiting for women who opt for a career in welding. There are significant economic benefits for women in non-traditional trades, from increased choice and availability of jobs, through to improved job security.

The welding industry is fast evolving. The advent of automation and other progressive welding technologies are paving the way for the manufacturing of high-tech equipment for the aerospace and defence industries, among others. Welding itself is no longer precarious, dirty work in dark workshops, but the precise work of the technically minded in bright, open workspaces.

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