The NBN has spent five years and millions of dollars trying to convince us it can attract the thousands of skilled workers it needs to complete the rollout by 2020.
Back in 2010, Innovation and Business Skills Australia (IBSA) warned the project faced “a major shortfall of skilled workers”, which it quantified as around 8000 cablers.
Months later, the formerly-named NBN Co itself forecast a need for 15,000 to 20,000 full-time workers to cope with peak construction demands, later revising the number to 16,000 to 18,000.
Five years on – and with a new strategy to roll out multiple connection technologies rather than mostly fibre – the NBN is still facing a large shortfall of workers.
NBN now hopes a new $40 million training scheme will be enough to attract former Telstra cablers (“late-stage career workers”) back to the industry, as well as bring a new generation of young workers in.
It’s not the first time NBN or the Government has tried to build an NBN workforce from former Telstra staff.
Telstra has been given $100 million in Government funding to retrain some 6500 construction and maintenance personnel that were expected to be displaced “as a consequence of the rollout of the NBN”.
The scope of this retraining fund was revised in December last year to reflect the shift in rollout strategy by the Government, though its purpose is fundamentally the same.
“All eligible Telstra employees may be retrained,” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in May this year.
“In order to be eligible, Telstra must be satisfied that the employee may otherwise face redundancy as a consequence of the rollout of the NBN. In addition, Telstra's copper/HFC [hybrid fibre coaxial] based field workforce are automatically eligible for retraining.”
However, this is clearly not getting enough ex-cablers on the streets, with NBN now specifically looking for skilled personnel that are no longer with Telstra and therefore have been ineligible for this funded training.
At least one cabling expert believes the latest $40 million initiative won’t be enough to convince many former Telstra cablers to return or young people to join.
Kevin Fothergill, the registrar of cablers for the Telecommunications Industry Training Advisory Board (TITAB Australia), has been warning successive governments and NBN management “for many, many moons” about the challenges in finding skilled workers to complete the rollout.
“We've said consistently that a lot of the ex-Telstra people will not come back into the industry,” Fothergill told Information Age.
“A lot of ex-Telstra people have been burnt. They’ve come back into the industry before and worked as contractors or subcontractors, and the work's run out after three or six months because it's moved on [to a new rollout area].
“You can't run an industry like that.”
Likewise, to attract younger people into the cabling industry, they would need to be convinced that it was a career path with some stability and longevity of prospects, he said.
“With young people, you've got to have a certificate-based training program like an apprenticeship where you bring them in and they've got continuous work,” Fothergill said.
Fothergill said even experienced cablers needed to be offered a mix of short and long training courses. NBN has previously said it would offer as little as a fortnight’s retraining to get experienced people on board.
For its part, NBN claims there will be "long term opportunities" created - particularly for young people - at its construction contractor partners, some of whom will remain involved in the project once construction finishes to operate or maintain network assets.