Skills shortage could delay NBN rollout: Union

A communications skills shortage may still be an issue despite a $100 million grant to Telstra to fund NBN skills training for its staff.

The Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) has warned that the speed of the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) could be affected due to a lack of skilled workers and despite some $100 million in Government funds being spent on training up Telstra employees.

In its submission to the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network, Communications Division (CWU) of the union said there were a number of issues relating to the supply of labour to NBN Co for the NBN rollout.

“These relate to the question of skills development and potential skills shortages for the project as a whole, above and beyond the Telstra training programme,” the submission reads. The $100 million, according to the CWU, is a grant from the Commonwealth as part of the Definitive Agreements governing the NBN project.

The CWU said a number of initiatives had been undertaken by NBN Co by training providers and the Commonwealth and States to ensure the availability of an appropriately trained workforce for the NBN rollout. However, the CWU feared these initiatives could prove insufficient.

“The CWU is concerned, however, that these may not yet be sufficiently well co-ordinated and funded to meet the needs of the project in a timely fashion,” the submission reads.

The CWU said it had met with Telstra to discuss the content of the training program and the timetable for its implementation, but the union was concerned that little training to date had occurred. The CWU was also concerned that it was still unclear as to what the new roles and jobs the training was meant train current staff to.

According to the CWU, the union had warned of possible skill shortages affecting the NBN roll-out since 2008. In particular, it argued that companies tendering for the then fibre-to-the-node-based [FTTN] NBN should be required to “specify how they intended to meet the skills requirements involved in building, maintaining and operating the proposed FTTN” and identify areas of anticipated shortage.

However, the CWU argues that the model eventually adopted for the NBN “has meant that responsibility for skill development and supply does not and cannot be made to rest with any one participant in the project.

“As a result, co-ordination and funding questions in relation to skill shortages have inevitably arisen,” the submission reads.

“These have been exacerbated by structural changes in the telecommunications workforce over the last decade (or more) which has seen many former employees become sub-contractors. Such workers may often not have the means or the incentives to undertake retraining for the NBN project, especially where significantly higher skill levels are required.”

Skills issues are not the only problem affecting the NBN. Analyst firm Telsyte yesterday warned that uptake to the National Broadband Network (NBN) was potentially being limited by the lack of work on withdrawing copper services.

The withdrawal of the copper network, which is slated to occur over 18 months, needs to begin now, Telsyte said. However, Chris Coughlan, consulting director at Telsyte, said he doesn’t believe it will occur before the next federal election, which could happen as early as August next year. Instead, he expects it to begin at the start of 2014.

NBN Co also came under pressure yesterday with calls from the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network for the company to begin providing details on how and when it intended to begin transitioning to a funding model which incorporates private equity.

“The committee continues to be interested in when and how private equity might be engaged in funding the NBN wholesale platform, and at what financial return to the government and, ultimately, taxpayers,” the Committee said in its latest review of the rollout of the National Broadband Network report.

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More about: CEPU, Electrical and Plumbing Union, etwork, Telstra, Telsyte
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