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Overcoming chronic lack of skilled tradespeople in PNG requires more government funding

An analysis of foreign workers coming to Papua New Guinea since 2000 indicates a chronic lack of skilled tradespeople, according to Lae-based business leaders. While skills training initiatives are under way, an expected surge in mining projects over the next few years highlights the urgency for more skilled workers.

The number of blue collar workers coming to Papua New Guinea rose by more than 1700% in the 12 years from 2000 to 2012, aligned with the growth of PNG’s mining and construction sectors, according to Australian National University researcher Carmen Voigt-Graf.

Her analysis of data from PNG’s National Statistics Office shows that during that period the largest group of foreign workers were ‘administration, executive, managerial’, followed by ‘professional, technical’. Those numbers grew by 203% and 233% respectively, ‘indicating a shortage of highly skilled labour in PNG’.

The third largest group was tradespeople, such as mechanics and boilermen, accounting for 16,848 working visitors in 2012, the height of the PNG LNG construction boom. [Back in 2000, only 925 tradespeople came to work in PNG.]

Recent slow down

‘The figures don’t surprise me overly,’ says Alan McLay, President of the Lae Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc (LCCI), ‘but I believe that the rate of foreign tradesmen have probably slowed down recently.’

Michael Kingston, Chief Executive Officer of Lae-based manufacturer K K Kingston, agrees:

‘Certainly, the intense pressure on companies to retain their skilled staff in the face of aggressive employment offerings from PNG LNG has abated. We are no longer “bleeding” skilled labour every month.

‘That said, there are clearly certain trades that are hard to source in PNG. Good, experience industrial electricians, for example, are in my opinion one of the hardest trades to find.’

McLay adds: ‘Throughout the country, the companies pointed out that much of this was due to the failure of the apprenticeship scheme and the TVET Programme, and the low standard of graduates from [PNG’s] technical institutions.’

‘Lae-based companies reacted by providing more in-house training (mainly company training and using an institute to provide specific modules in line with the company’s training needs), and better packages to retain the skilled workers required,’ he said.

Centre of excellence

But, while industry and the Lae’s two technical institutions are moving to overcome the shortage, a longer-term solution is needed.

The PNG Government is developing Lae as a Centre of Excellence in technical training, says McLay.

The Department of Higher Education, Unitech and Polytech representative along with executives from Oil Search, ExxonMobil, Newcrest Mining, Harmony Gold, Morobe Mining JV, the PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum and LCCI, have joined with the Australian Pacific Technical College (APTC).

‘We’ve had 10 meetings so far and the pathway has become clearer,’ says McLay.

‘Already, there have been clear achievements but the achievements so far are only a stepping stone for the overall aim of getting a better system so as to regain the confidence of the private sector, so they will be happy to contribute to better resourced institutions.’

Sustained effort required

Kingston predicts it will take a sustained effort over a decade or more to improve the situation.

‘APTC has proven beyond doubt that it is possible to run world-class training for the trades in PNG. The quality of graduates that they are producing is exceptional.

‘By looking at APTC, we can see what is required to produce such results: excellent facilities; excellent training staff, excellent administration and management. None of this comes cheap, though, and this is one of the criticisms that have been made of APTC: they are too expensive and businesses are reluctant to spend the money.

‘What most people are unaware of, though, is that the cost of training is already subsidised to the tune of 50% by the Australian government.’

‘If we want to role out high quality training models like this to the rest of the country, then it requires sustained focus and investment by the government.

‘It will also have to effectively subsidise the cost of this training to make it cost effective for businesses.

‘Such spending is an investment in the future of PNG, just as building a new road or a new port.

‘We can have all the physical infrastructure in the world but if we don’t have the human capacity, we will not develop as a nation,’ says Kingston.

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