Opinion: Time for a training levy

Dr Michael Riese, M.AIRAH, is Business Development Manager – Defence & Research at Cold Logic. He shares his views on the need for an HVAC&R training levy.

Last week, AIRAH’s South Australian division crowned the new apprentice of the year in HVAC&R. The standard of the eight candidates put forward by TAFE SA was excellent, and even though only one person was able to take home the prize, all have a prosperous future ahead of them.

During general discussions at the event, it was put to me that positions for suitable refrigeration mechanics in South Australia are now on the market that pay complete packages in excess of $150,000 per annum.

There is clearly a market-driven pay adjustment based on the current shortage of qualified personnel. For those who have chosen our field, the future is looking good.

It was also put to me, however, that the same company currently looking for qualified staff at fantastic rates does not have a single apprentice in South Australia!

This particular company is a largish organisation that is able to pay those high gross packages. They should also be able to employ and train apprentices in the field.

So, why is this such a big problem? After all, employees are always on the move. The young ones chase the money and people move from company to company quite often until they find a long-term home where the overall environment, culture and benefit match their ambitions and desires.

But in my opinion, this situation is different to what we have seen before, and can significantly change the market dynamics and geographical distribution of recently qualified technicians.

The packages on offer are large enough for people to move significant distances. And the people and companies that will suffer are not the large organisation with offices all across the country, not the companies that have 50 or 100 employees.

It is the companies and business owners that have one or maybe two apprentices, it is the companies that are located in rural areas that may have a good egg that they trained up and they have great hope in. Now, these workers will potentially leave, after the company has effectively invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. The people that will be lost to the small enterprises are the rising stars, the technicians who have the skills and abilities to make a difference.

So, what is the solution? What can be done to encourage companies to train new technicians, especially those companies that are well and truly big enough to help the industry to grow and to be sustainable? In my opinion the answer is simple.

Introduce a state or even national training levy in the HVAC&R industry that is administered by an independent body so that companies are less likely to rip off the system or avoid paying their dues.

This levy should reward companies that are already training apprentices. It should make it easier for small companies in regional and rural areas of each state to take on apprentices. It could help with accommodation or travel costs for apprentices from rural and regional areas, so they don’t have to drive back at the end of a busy TAFE week and end up in an accident due to fatigue.

Other industry sectors have already launched similar schemes to ensure that people within the sector continue to be trained, even if they have to change employers due to project requirements and other circumstances.

Are these schemes perfect? I don’t think so, but they are a starting point to consider what is possible.

Now, the case described above may be an anomaly. But there is evidence that we are already not qualifying enough new trades in the HVAC&R field to replace the wave of retirements expected in years to come.

Australia is the lucky country. We have put together training packages that are world class when it comes to the HVAC&R trades. But we will cannibalise ourselves if we do not train, maintain and enhance skills in our sector.

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