New ways of building demand new ways of training. Has the apprenticeship model run its course? What sort of training do tradies need to stay future-fit?

Established institutions generally don’t respond well to trends that threaten their paradigm.

Uber, for example, appeared quickly and caught governments by surprise. Or did it? The company was established in 2009 and had made headlines the world over before it arrived in Sydney in 2012.

The truth is, Uber didn’t come here by stealth. We had plenty of warning about the need for a regulatory rethink. Yet it was only years after its arrival that governments got around to implementing safeguards.

The story of Uber illustrates a basic truth about public policy: it invariably reacts rather than anticipates. And this should concern anyone with an interest in creating future-fit construction workers.

Like all other industries, the DNA of construction is being rewritten around new technology and ways of working. This will in turn rewrite the DNA of construction training. Our choice is whether these changes are done to us, or with us.

The construction training system must get out in front of these trends. This requires coming to grips with the demands that future construction methods will make of the training system, particularly apprenticeships.

Vale apprenticeships?

The master-apprentice relationship has been the lynchpin of construction since the middle ages. It is a system that delivers over 10,000 new construction tradespeople each year, meeting about a third of the total annual requirement for new trades across Australia.

It would be a big call to predict the end of this model. And it would likely be very wrong.

Consider the sheer volume of work that goes into maintaining our existing stock of buildings. Altering, extending and converting dwellings accounts for close to $10 billion of residential work each year in Australia. That doesn’t include the countless callouts to unblock toilets, repair electrical faults and remediate rotten decks.

Unlike new construction, this sector is not amenable to automation. Robots do not perform well outside controlled, usually factory, conditions. So while these ‘odd-job tradies’ will no doubt be helped by new technology—as they were by pneumatic tools and lithium-ion batteries—they are highly unlikely to be ‘disrupted’ in the true sense of the word.

This means that even if new construction is fundamentally disrupted, the need to maintain the existing building stock will underpin the demand for conventionally-trained tradespeople well into the future (albeit in reduced numbers). The apprenticeship model stands alone as the best vehicle for making sure this work continues to be done safely and competently.

Yet there will be changes

The buildings of the future will be a very different beast compared to the simple structures that dominate today’s landscape. Yet no matter how advanced, these buildings will also need to be maintained and modified. This will require a new level of expertise from those tasked with keeping the lights on.

For example, it will not be enough for an electrician to get by with a working knowledge of residential wiring practices – they will need to be expert in digital installations, low voltage distribution networks and renewable energy equipment. Carpenters will need to keep abreast of advanced materials and green building regulations. Plumbers will have to contend with quickly evolving fire protection systems and regulations.

This demands a new mentality of continuous learning. Construction workers can no longer expect to ‘learn their trade’ in the first four years of their career, and spend the next 40 years mastering it. They must commit to a career of learning new technologies and methods as they arise.


The role of the training system

The trades training system has a lot of work to do to get ready for this new world. We will need to find good answers to at least four key issues:

1) Proprietary training

The bread-and-butter tools and techniques of tomorrow’s workers will be products of private enterprise, not public goods. They will be specific to the companies that own them, and those companies will control who gets to use them and under what terms.

This means that companies will become much bigger players in the training landscape. Vendors will seek to control the content and delivery of training products, and they will seek to monetise this training as a core component of their products.

This trend is already firmly established in the IT industry, where ‘platform businesses’ like Microsoft, Google and Oracle run extensive training and certification networks. For many employers, these certifications carry more weight than generic IT degrees from tertiary institutions.

2) Customised skills pathways

Standardised, well-defined training pathways are a mainstay of the vocational training system. This paradigm is being steadily undermined by the erosion of long-term, well-defined occupations. Tightly linked occupations, courses and qualifications will increasingly give way to customised occupations and skilling journeys.

Workers are already stitching together disparate ‘micro-credentials’ to suit career pathways they have designed for themselves. In data science, workers are creating unique sets of skills across statistics, programming and communication. Where one worker may choose to emphasise programming, collecting half-a-dozen languages, another focuses on communication, cultivating skills in data visualisation and writing.

3) Micro-credentialing

Customised skills pathways require training offerings that are far less homogenous and far more fragmented. Tomorrow’s workers will favour courses that transfer narrow-but-deep skills in specific toolsets and technologies, rather than the integrated and monolithic training packages that dominate today’s skilling landscape, albeit with a bedrock of generalist training.

This adds-up to shorter courses with a focus on micro-credentialing that enable workers to pursue the skills niche they have defined for themselves. Long and amorphous ‘Masters’ programs with often marginal relevance to real jobs will be far less relevant to the workers of the future.

4) Self-directed training

Historically, training pathways have been clearly laid out by regulating institutions and authorities. Engineering societies, accounting bodies and building regulators make it very clear what is required to work in their domains, and from these requirements we derive our training and qualification systems. Workers simply get in line.

As we move into the much more flexible ‘gig economy’ the onus will increasingly be on individual workers to decide what collection of skills they wish to cultivate to achieve their career goals. Boundaries will continue to be set by regulators, but there will be far more scope for individuals to craft unique training pathways.