How we can build our way out of dodgy construction work

Written by CEO Murray Thomas

This article was originally published in The West Australian on 1 August 2022.

WA’s building and construction sector has played a key role in keeping the State’s economy strong through the pandemic. However, we are currently missing a major opportunity to develop a quality workforce and keep our communities safe into the future.

For too long there has been a race to the bottom in the construction industry in which pressure to submit the cheapest possible quote flows all the way down the contracting chain.

The result is a profit-squeezed industry that too often delivers non-compliant work.

The challenges facing WA’s building and construction sector are immense, from high rates of insolvency in the sector to skills and labour shortages and supply chain disruptions.

Added to this is the low level of knowledge and awareness of the technical requirements of the National Construction Code, which is enabling poor quality work and ultimately putting lives at risk.

The ease with which building and construction work that does not comply with building codes and legislation can be signed  off and handed over to owners would alarm most West Australians.

A shortage of government inspectors means that many engineering consultants who sign compliance certificates are directly engaged and paid by the developers, whose work they are inspecting.

It is not surprising then that we are seeing major defects in newly constructed buildings, with substantial rectification costs for both developers and property owners.

The result is buildings that are unfit for use, higher insurance and ongoing maintenance costs, higher utility costs due to poor design and installation and serious health and safety hazards including greater risk of loss of life in the event of fire.

One high-rise apartment development in the Perth CBD was handed over to owners with poor waterproofing, a malfunctioning thermal power system, windows that were not fit for purpose and issues with the ground water ingress in the basement. The repairs cost $30 million.

The cost of rectifying non-compliant work is on average 5 per cent of the construction cost and costs WA an estimated $475 million annually. This cannot be tolerated or accepted as being somehow normal in our industry.

A weak compliance regime is partly to blame. That is why the Master Plumbers and Gasfitters Association of WA wants to see stronger enforcement of the National Construction Code with serious penalties for non-compliance.

This needs to be supported by targeted reform to training and licensing requirements.

We can and must do better than the current reactive and patchwork approach to licensing and training in the sector.

There is an enormous opportunity to raise the bar on the theoretical and practical apprentice training offered in WA, particularly to smooth out the disconnection that often exists between classroom training and the on-the-job tasks employers ask apprentices to perform.

We also want to see mandatory Continuing Professional Development training for each trade.

The plumbing and gasfitting industry in Australia lacks a mandatory continuing professional development program.

Other industries and professions have continuing professional development programs to ensure qualified people stay up to date with skills and knowledge during their careers.

Our industry is as dynamic, complex and important as any other and so we have the same need for continual learning.

These reform opportunities were clearly articulated in the 2018 Building Confidence report by Professor Peter Shergold AC and Ms Bronwyn Weir. Commissioned by the Building Ministers’ Forum, this report outlined 24 detailed recommendations to strengthen the building and construction sector. Unfortunately, reform has taken far too long.

The McGowan Government’s recent move to kickstart construction industry reforms by registering building engineers is an important step, but there is more work needed to improve standards across the board and ultimately outcomes for the WA community.

Together, we can invest in the development of a quality workforce that protects our community and is well-placed to grasp the opportunities in front of us.