Jan Rieche

The profusion of large-scale solar and wind projects due to start construction this year is resulting in a talent drought similar to that experienced during the mining boom.

Jan Rieche, general manager of energy, infrastructure & German clients at boutique recruitment consultancy Polyglot Group, told The Fifth Estate the boom in renewable energy projects is likely to affect the job market quite heavily.

“There are 10 or 12 projects that are going to start in large-scale solar alone, which brings us to a point – where are all these people supposed to be coming from when we have only had three or four projects over the last 10 years in large-scale solar being built?” he said.

“It is almost a little bit like the mining boom – a lot of projects starting up at the same time –which also means we are requiring the same types of people that aren’t here.

“Up until a year ago we had not enough jobs for good people and now we don’t have nearly enough people for the types of jobs that are coming up in the next three or four years.”

The skills shortage is not right across the board. It’s workers with experience in large-scale solar farms that are required. For example, planning, engineering, construction and commissioning.

“People that have worked in larger-scale energy projects before, we can actually transfer some of those skills but some skills we simply don’t have,” Rieche said.

Currently skilled workers are coming from the UK, which experienced a slump 12 months ago when the government cut most of the support mechanisms. Talent is also coming from Germany, Spain, Italy and the US.

Large-scale wind projects are also on the rise but the Australian industry has been steadily expanding for 15 years.

“They seem to be coming at a more moderate pace so there’s always one or two going, rather than nothing then 15 to 20 at the same time,” Rieche said.

Some workers with skills in renewables left to work in Europe and the US and now recruiters such as Polyglot are trying to lure them back.

New attitude to survive

To flourish during this skills shortage, we need to alter our attitude to recruitment and training, according to Rieche. Instead of hiring workers who are “ready to go”, we need to invest more time in people.

“We probably need to change our attitude more towards, ‘Hang on, we have people coming off mining and other projects with very similar skill sets. We need to invest a little more time in them in order for them to be able to work on these projects.’

“Or we have to go back and say, ‘We have four or five good years ahead of us, why not actually take in a few graduates, help them to learn the ropes, and have them here for the next three or four years?’”

While there are noble exceptions, Rieche says we don’t put a lot of emphasis into grooming good graduates for larger-scale infrastructure projects. Instead, we import talent.

Encouraging knowledge sharing

Skilled workers arrive in Australia for short-term projects on 400 visas or for several years on 457 visas. When sponsoring employees under the 457 visa, companies are obliged to spend one per cent of their payroll on training Australian employees.

As part of its services, Polyglot works with clients to put a case to immigration and the tax office as to why workers from overseas are required. Clients are encouraged to develop training programs that would enable overseas talent to share skills with their Australian counterparts.

“We stress with our clients the need to commit to the part of training Australian employees,” Rieche said. “To actually be able to – for the next project – use the same Australian employees to train them up and put them across. We want that knowledge transfer.”

This sort of knowledge sharing occurred in Western Australia when Brisbane-based juwi Australia flew out senior employees from Germany to work with Australians on the De Grussa Solar Project – a 10.6 megawatt solar facility plus 6MW battery integrated with an existing diesel power station for the mining industry.

Similarly, the Spanish owner of the 56MW Moree Solar Farm, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV), brought out about 15 per cent of workers with specialised expertise.

“They were passing on their knowledge to the local guys here who had some experience but not experience, for instance, with such large-scale projects,” Rieche said.

Diversity brings productivity gains

A benefit of hiring workers from diverse cultures is an increase in productivity.

“If you look at companies in the US and Europe, and Asia as well, competition is quite often much fiercer than here,” Rieche said. “So they are used to different ways of doing things that might be just a bit faster, a bit better, a bit easier way to get to your goal than we might be doing things here.”

It might be different processes, different technology or simply a different mindset.

“The combination of having guys from overseas in management positions or co-workers to work here plus obviously always the need to understand the Australian way of doing things … if you can combine the two things in the right way, everyone profits.”