The factory line worker's skillset: long may it live

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It's gone. Car manufacture and assembly is dead in Australia.  It is now time to break that emotional bond with locally-produced cars and it's time to rapidly retrain and redeploy this vast workforce.

The recent announcements from Holden, Ford and now Toyota regarding the winding down of their manufacturing operations in 2016/2017 has naturally caused a lot of angst among the aforementioned company employees as well as the workers of the companies in the respective supply chains.   That being said, the skills these people possess are too valuable to simply wither away into the ether.

Urban Melbourne has previously reported on the pre-fabricated building sector in action (One9, Hall Street Moonee Ponds, 34 apartments, 5 days) as well as examples from overseas (Avi Friedman's outside the box thinking on affordable housing) and we now feel it to be even more necessary to champion an expanding pre-fabricated building sector in Australia.

Jemma Green and Peter Newman from Curtin University, writing in the Conversation, best explain it:

While many of the Australian modular builders are focused on single and two storey dwellings, one company has setup a factory in Melbourne which is making multi-storey dwellings: Hickory Group. Although the company has been building using conventional methods for generations, five years ago it established a modular factory which now employs more than 150 people and is producing more than 500 apartments every year. Many of the employees are drawn from the depleted Victorian automotive manufacturing sector. Since inception, the factory has produced multi-storey modular residential and hotel projects across the country, and engineered a system that can achieve architecturally diverse high-rise buildings.

Green and Newman furthermore explain:

The workforce for modular building requires skills that are usually associated with auto manufacturing, rather than traditional building skills. This includes factors such as design upfront, proactive rather than reactive thinking, procuring materials upfront and warehousing components. There is a clear opportunity to up-skill the auto manufacturing industry to building manufacturing.

...

Modular will never completely replace conventional building approaches, but it will take a much greater share in the market, particularly for multi-storey buildings. This 21st century innovation offers a much more sustainable option for the construction sector.

Australian manufacturing has a window of opportunity here - to turn around the manufacturing industry from ailing to growing. If we don’t seize the day in building manufacturing, foreign companies will certainly fill the gap in the market, which could lead to job losses in traditional building.

We agree.

There is a threat any Royal Commission into unions operating in Australia will suck the oxygen out of any potential momentum the manufacturing and construction sectors may gain in the short term and we call on the Victorian and Federal Governments to:

  • demand the corporate entities operating the Holden, Ford and Toyota brands play a major financial role in up-skilling their soon-to-be retrenched workforce for transition into other manufacturing sectors.
  • not get bogged down by ideological schadenfreude but rather engage directly with the urban industry and relevant trade unions so that the construction sector can freely innovate and place itself in a position to grow and soak up the talent which will be let go from the automotive sector in the next few years.
  • focus Public Transport policy on obtaining a greater public return out of existing road assets by priortising investment in road-based public transport over new commuter freeway projects.  This should involve: bus route straightening, shortening and most importantly of all, dramatically improve frequency and operating hours of all bus routes.
  • significantly lift the paltry amount of money spent on expanding non-motorised public transport infrastructure such as bicycle lanes and other pedestrian infrastructure throughout Metropolitan Melbourne.

Post 2017 as car manufacture and assembly in Australia ceases, the nation will no longer have an emotional bond with "our" cars and the car will just become another imported commodity.  And with the right public transport policies and budget priorities local bus body builders such as Volgren are well positioned to grow and take on laid-off Holden, Ford or Toyota employees. 

Will the pre-fabricated building industry or bus body manufacturing industry supply the sheer number of vacancies required to provide the entire automotive industry workforce with a job over the next 3 years?  Not likely, however they are well positioned to grow considerably if Government, Unions and Industry work together to ensure the environment exists for a dramatic upswing in innovation and growth within the construction sector and demand is boosted for more numerous cleaner and greener vehicles to operate a better bus network for Melbourne.

Preserving the skillsets and providing for the least painful transition for effected automotive workers into other manufacturing sectors is paramount and policy-makers should grasp the opportunity to reshape our cities from the outer suburban edges to the inner urban areas around more sustainable transport solutions that Holden, Ford and Toyota could never provide.

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