By Robyn Molloy
While the Pilbara is gearing up for the next wave of big projects worth up to $110 billion in the next 10 years, it’s also striving to overcome some major obstacles including skills and housing shortages.
Pilbara Development Commission’s Justin Fromm explains why housing the number of expected workers is a “significant” issue.
While government and industry heads highlighted the growth prospects for the region at the Pilbara 2019 summit last week, they also flagged the risks of repeating mistakes made during the last boom early this decade.
Pilbara Development Commission Director, Economic Development, Land and Infrastructure Justin Fromm said while the region welcomed the next mini boom, which will create 25,000 construction and 8500 operational jobs, the region needed to tackle the risks.
These include accommodation and skills shortages, pressure on health and education services, the increasing amount of heavy haulage on public roads used by tourists, insufficient childcare services and high airfare costs.
Ensuring regional appeal to attract long term workers remains an ongoing issue for the Pilbara, despite improvements in amenities in recent years.
Shortages of boilermakers and heavy vehicle drivers were already emerging, with limited options to lure workers from the east, which has its own strong pipeline of major infrastructure projects.
“The only way to get people is to attract them to the region and we will have to work to build the perception of the region to attract those people,” Fromm said.
A “poaching situation” had also emerged where SMEs were spending “a great deal of money to bring a quality person into their business only for them to realise the opportunity in a big mining company”.
“It’s starting to create wage inflation already in the Pilbara to the point where it is starting to become unsustainable for those small businesses to employ the people they need.”
Fromm said housing the expected number of workers was a “significant” issue with Karratha already showing signs of being under pressure, despite 6000 properties being built in the last boom, with vacancies now at similar levels to 2011.
The population is forecast to hit up to 80,000 by 2026 if all projects go ahead, up from more than 61,000.
“We are starting to hear stories of the private and government sectors having difficulty finding appropriate housing for workers and the length of time it takes to find that house is starting to push out,” Fromm said.
“When you are trying to attract people to the region, this is one of the challenges you need to overcome.
“Workers are going to be the driving force behind this next wave of investment and we are going to have to attract them to the Pilbara to ensure we, the region, WA and Australia get the most out of the next wave of investment for the Pilbara.”
Meanwhile, DevelopmentWA General Manager Regional Stuart Nahajski told the summit that commercial investment confidence was positive with several projects either underway or planned.
Commercial ventures include the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Karratha, the Tambrey Shopping Precinct, the Port Hedland marina and the Pilbara Motor Group’s new showroom and service centre.
He said the authority was monitoring land supply and housing prices but with it $150,000 cheaper to buy an existing house than a block and new build, it was not attracting investors.
DevelopmentWA was now seeking equity partners to deliver fresh housing stock.
“We have a terrific future, we have sufficient land supplies, we’re refreshing the planning across the Pilbara to make sure we are ready to go and in the meantime we’re engaging with some of the resource sector,” he said.
“When they (mining companies) drive employment growth and they need houses they need to be responsible for addressing some of the supply shortages and that will continue to provide building blocks for shaping the growth of the Pilbara to encourage a resilient residential workforce.”
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