Engineers Australia warns of NBN skills shortage

100-year lifespan for network possible with refurbishment

The head of Australia’s peak engineering representative body has issued a warning of the potential risk and staff retention issues inherent in the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Speaking to the National Press Club as key NBN legislation went to debate in Federal Parliament, Engineers Australia chief executive, Peter Taylor, urge all parties involved in the network to be realistic about the benefits of the national infrastructure.

“Political, business and community expectations about new or improved infrastructure are often raised to unrealistic levels, resulting in unnecessary public criticism and blame when projects do not achieve their expected outcomes,” Taylor said.

“New projects are often described in transformative terms and claims are made that they can be delivered in short time-frames. However, in reality, many of these projects provide only incremental improvements and almost all have lengthy design, construct and commissioning phases.”

The Gillard Government has been accused of overselling the fibre-to-the-home project of late. While it has stressed it will form part of a “major micro-economic reform” in the country, the opposition has claimed the faster speeds will only speed up access to Facebook, email and video streaming.

NBN 101: The economic argument

However, Taylor warned that ongoing skills shortages among engineers and the construction of competing infrastructure projects in the coming years put the NBN’s success at risk.

“This unprecedented program of works will require large skilled workforces in both the public and private sectors,” he said. “A significant risk is that due to skill shortages, projects will be delayed and costs will exceed estimates.

“There is an engineering skills shortage in most infrastructure areas and I predict that this will only get worse in the future. The shortage will be exacerbated by the increased demand for staff to work on projects across the nation.”

In addition, a large numbers of engineering practitioners retiring over the next decade, coupled with an inadequate supply of graduates, would complicate matters, Taylor said.

In the 36-page summary of its business case publicly released this week, NBN Co included two and a half pages of internal risk management priorities and procedures for the company. According to the summary, employees take responsibility for risk management in their own job areas with weekly risk reports.

However, the summary makes no mention of potential staff retention policies. The wholesaler has continued its recent hiring spree with little drop-off from employees to date.

Taylor said the life of infrastructure like the NBN could typically span between 20 and 50 years, but could be longer than 100 years with refurbishment.

“Economic principles should not be the sole determinant in deciding whether or not to construct a nation-building project,” he said. “The need for some infrastructure sometimes overrides a poor benefit-cost analysis. It could be argued that the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme and the NBN fit this category.

“A particular project may not be justified purely on economic returns, but from a broader perspective it may well be. There needs to be a way of capturing the non-economic and policy factors in any analysis.”

Engineering Australia counts 85,000 professional engineers among its members.

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @tlohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAu

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