This article was originally published in the Autumn 2022 edition of The Australian TAFE Teacher.
As the world embraces net zero emissions, Australia should be leveraging TAFE to develop the skills of Australian workers to create good, secure jobs as a leader in green energy production.
Australia has easy access to rich, green natural resources, with more solar energy potential than any other continent, making us the envy of the world. Yet, Australia is failing to harness these resources, paying ever increasing household energy bills and not pulling our weight when it comes to addressing the climate emergency.
With the election looming, the Clean Energy Council has charted a way for Australia to become a clean energy superpower. Central to its plan is the call for a $200 million clean energy skills package that offers targeted support for training facilities to upskill workers for critical transmission and renewable energy infrastructure development, particularly in the regions.
Research by the National Skills Commission backs up their vision of the renewable sector as a huge source of potential future jobs. They are calling jobs in this sector ‘emerging occupations’ – ones where they are seeing a new trend in frequent advertisements for jobs with new skills. In this case it is solar installers, energy efficiency engineers and wind turbine technicians. Yet, according to the Clean Energy Council, the renewable energy sector is experiencing significant difficulties recruiting workers with the right skills right now and this is stalling future projects. They argue existing training systems are not providing the right skills and say the fault lies with the federal government.
“This is the time to invest in the renewable energy labour market with targeted funding to support a growing and diverse regional workforce,” said Clean Energy Council Chief Executive, Kane Thornton.
While state and territory governments have become the torchbearers of policy ambition for Australia’s clean energy transition in recent years, the Clean Energy Council argues that it is the federal government that needs to take the lead on a strong and co-ordinated renewables strategy.
“This should include establishing a taskforce involving governments, unions, regulators and training and research bodies to understand and map future workforce needs and gaps and establish clear strategies to address them,” says Thornton.
AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe agrees; “the clearest strategy we need is to rebuild the renewable sector by providing targeted funding to TAFE. Instead of overseeing a skills crisis in this and so many other sectors on their watch, the federal government should have responded to the clear needs of the market by rebuilding with TAFE. Instead we have jobs that can’t be filled and projects that can’t get off the ground.”
The Clean Energy Council reports that only three major projects were signed off in the second quarter of last year which is 70% below 2018 levels. While a lot of the blame can be placed on the Morrison Government’s failure to understand the urgency of climate change and commit
to national targets, it is also his government’s failure to support emerging markets.
The Australia Institute’s chief economist Richard Denniss told Renew Energy Magazine that much of the problem comes down to the fundamental flaw in how infrastructure projects are conceived. “We’re pretending the real skill of infrastructure is cooking up the contracts and financing. We’ve got every merchant bank in the country saying ‘oh yes, we specialise in getting new infrastructure projects by successfully bidding to do something… Oh we’ve won the bid! Does anyone have ten thousand skilled staff willing to start? Oh, I thought you did’.”
TAFE leading by example
Despite nearly nine years of policy vandalism by the federal coalition governments and constant bickering over climate change policy, TAFEs are already demonstrating they can lead the way in skills training and education for this sector.
Setting students up for the future
Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) is one example of TAFEs stepping up to meet the need. They offer training in solar technology including Solar Photo Voltaic, Battery Storage Systems, Small Battery Training and Grid Connection Training for electricians and apprentices. CIT is also an exclusive provider of Global Wind Organisation (GWO) certified training in the ACT and surrounding regional NSW. Ilsa Stuart, Senior Manager, Renewables at CIT said; “We offer training in renewable energy technology these courses include Grid Connected Photovoltaic systems as well as Battery Storage Systems Training for electricians and our apprentices can choose to do solar training as their elective during their apprenticeship. Students also undertake training with wind power generation installation and maintenance.”
“Training as an electric vehicle technician is also a growing area of interest as more people embrace electric cars, training includes some online learning with workplace simulations for apprentices.”
CIT student, Grant Napier, who studied a Certificate III in Electrotechnology including training in solar and batteries, says the course is setting him up for a future career in renewables.
“I am studying because I know it is a career where I am challenged to find solutions and where my skills are tested constantly.”
“The CIT training is preparing me for all I face at work. I am currently working in mechanical electrical installing mechanical services and plant equipment, and maintaining building management systems and doing electrical upgrades, and new installations. The training will help me shift into renewables work.”
WA leading the charge in the battery value chain
With demand for batteries forecast to accelerate up to 10-fold over the next decade, a research collaboration involving the WA State Government, South Metropolitan (SM) TAFE and the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBICRC) is working to give Australia a competitive edge in the growing battery value chain.
A key partner in the collaboration, SM TAFE already works closely with BHP’s Nickel West, providing training for workers at its nickel sulphate plant. SM TAFE also trains electricians in battery energy storage systems installation, applied engineering, and in light automotive (mechanics) to de-power and initialise electric vehicles. The SM TAFE campus located at Munster in the Kwinana Industrial Area and Western Trade Coast precinct means the college is well placed to assist companies moving into battery minerals refining and chemical production to skill and reskill workers for future jobs.
North Metropolitan (NM) TAFE is training Western Power and Horizon workers in the installation and maintenance of standalone power systems; and is moving into training for the maintenance and management of network battery, wind and solar power. NM TAFE is also training mining workers in minerals extraction, both relevant to the mining and processing of battery minerals.