Telstra and the rest of the telco industry have been blamed for the dire lack of skills that could endanger the roll-out of the National Broadband Network.
In a submission (PDF) to a Lower House inquiry on the benefits of the National Broadband Network, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) pointed to NBN Co estimates that between 15,000 and 25,000 workers would be required to roll out the network and that lobbyist group Innovation and Business Skills Australia had predicted a shortfall of between 7000 and 10,000 telecommunications and electrical technicians.
The CEPU said the privatisation of Telstra by the Howard Government back in the 1990s, along with a lack of investment in training by the rest of the industry, meant that NBN Co would need to conduct a mountain of training to fill the gap.
"Telstra has wound back its internal training programs and other companies have relied to a large degree on the skills of previously Telstra-trained employees to supply skill needs. This source of skilled labour is now drying up as the generation of workers trained within Telstra nears retirement age," the union said.
The CEPU also blamed outsourcing by the telco giant, and pointed at a reluctance within the industry to train employees who might then be "poached" by competitors.
"Together, these trends have led to a decline in the delivery of structured telecommunications training, especially to trade and para-professional levels. As a result, the NBN project now faces the likelihood of skills shortages, especially in regional areas," the union said.
The CEPU welcomed plans by NBN Co to train workers involved in the project, but said it was concerned that much of the required manpower would end up coming from subcontractors, which would undermine skill development and possibly lead to low quality work.
"Cost pressures on all sections of the NBN contracting pyramid can be expected to be intense, but inevitably it is those at the bottom of the hierarchy — the small 'independent' contractors — who feel these pressures most sharply. The likely result is training shortcuts with all their negative implications for work quality, safety and national capability."
The CEPU welcomed the $100 million allocated for Telstra to retrain its employees with skills required for the NBN as part of the government's $11 billion deal with the telco. However, the union said that the training should be focused on the long-term skills needed for the telecommunications industry, rather than those required for the build of the NBN alone.
NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley highlighted in Senate Estimates hearings last month that the Queensland floods could also exacerbate the skills shortage, as work is focused on repair efforts in the state.
The Federal Government has attempted to ease the anticipated shortage by refining the skilled migration occupation list to target telecommunications industry-related skills.