Skill shortage threatens Macarthur small business

Dr Michael Freelander meets with Craig and Steven Darvill and Greg Whitelaw at C and S Engineering. Pictures: Jess Layt
Dr Michael Freelander meets with Craig and Steven Darvill and Greg Whitelaw at C and S Engineering. Pictures: Jess Layt

Small trade businesses in Macarthur are desperate to hire workers but are struggling to find anyone who fits the bill.

Companies like C and S Engineering and Toolmaking in Smeaton Grange have advertised vacant positions for months – for either skilled workers or apprentices they can train – and have been disheartened by the lack of response from the community.

Several business owners met with Macarthur MP Dr Michael Freelander on Wednesday to discuss their troubles in attracting employees.

Craig and Steven Darvill, of C and S and Greg Whitelaw of Englaw (Smeaton Grange fabrication and engineering company) told Dr Freelander that one of the biggest obstacles to finding appropriate workers was a lack of school leavers interested in highly-skilled trade jobs.

“Kids aren’t looking far enough into the future,” Mr Whitelaw said.

“If they can earn $15 an hour at McDonald’s or $25 an hour at Bunnings, they don’t want to waste their time earning $11 an hour as a first year apprentice.”

Mr Whitelaw said it was hard to change the culture that has developed which views trade jobs as less prestigious than other jobs.

“It’s not a culture where people go, ‘you know, I think being a boiler-maker is a good thing’,” he said.

“But that is just the first step – there’s so much further you can go from there.”

Frankie Bailey, a consultant convening the meeting, said changing that culture needed to start at schools.

“We need to raise a conversation among parents and schools that going into trades is not second best,” Mr Bailey said.

“These types of trades are the higher end of the education spectrum.

“The old idea of the bright kids went to university and the rest went to trades is just not the truth anymore.

“That is still a very strong cultural belief we need to overcome.”

Steve Mynott at his work station.

Steve Mynott at his work station.

Dr Freelander said it was vital to get representatives from schools, TAFEs and government in a room together to work on a plan to encourage more kids consider highly-skilled work.

“Everything in schools is focussed on the average ATAR the students achieve, and I think it is wrong and we could do a lot better,” Dr Freelander said.

Mr Whitelaw said the types of people he needed on the floor were skilled in various areas of academics.

“We need people who have good mathematical skills, English and literacy, but we can grow that in kids as well,” Mr Whitelaw said.

“Like I say to my apprentice, if you think you dodged English and maths at school, you’re wrong, you’re going to learn it here but it will be in the context of your trade.

“A good year 10 school-leaver could come into some training and work in this workshop and end up being everything that I want.”

Dr Freelander agreed that it was imperative vocational courses in schools allowed kids to leave the classroom and get practical experience in workshops.

“This would require insurance and such, and that’s where the government can get involved and help out,” he said.

Steven Darvill said his business frequently created high-level products for massive companies – including things like aeronautic parts – but the inability to find workers limited what C and S could achieve.

“If I’m working hard to put together a tender, piles of paperwork, for something like a government contract, that’s time I’m not spending on the floor,” he said.

“That means work just doesn’t get done.”

Craig and Steven’s employee Steve Mynott, a machinist from Spring Farm, said the number of apprentices undertaking the same course he did years ago had been steadily in decline.

He said the majority of applicants for C and S’s vacant position came from overseas, including countries like Malaysia, and there were little-to-no local applicants.

Dr Freelander said he would take the businesses’ concerns to the Labor party’s shadow ministers and explain just how vital it is to shake up the vocational education sector.

Greg Whitelaw, Steve Darvill, Dr Michael Freelander, Steve Mynott and Craig Darvill.

Greg Whitelaw, Steve Darvill, Dr Michael Freelander, Steve Mynott and Craig Darvill.