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Skilled Labor Shortage Plagues Australian Shipyards

Nov. 14, 2012 - 07:28AM   |  
By NIGEL PITTAWAY   |   Comments
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The shipbuilding industry in Australia is facing pressure from a shortage of skilled labor and a lack of continuity in naval shipbuilding projects.

The industry is grappling with the problem as Australia’s first landing helicopter dock ship (LHD) was inducted into BAE Systems’ Williams-town Dockyard here Oct. 28. The hull was constructed in Navantia’s facility in Ferrol, Spain, and brought to Australia.

BAE Systems Australia is the prime contractor for two 27,000-ton LHDs being acquired under a 2 billion to 3 billion Australian dollar ($2.06 billion to $3.12 billion) joint project. BAE is responsible for the fabrication of four sections of superstructure, including mast modules built by its yard at Henderson in Western Australia, and will complete fitting out of the entire vessels.

The Williamstown shipyard is the same facility responsible for damaging a hull module for Australia’s air warfare destroyer (AWD) program. The module had to be reworked as a result of faulty manufacturing techniques which, in part, were blamed on the loss of skilled workers following the completion of the Anzac frigate project in the last decade.

Australia is experiencing a shortage of welders, logistics engineers, data analysts, marine engineers and naval architects. Much of the skilled labor has been lost to Australia’s burgeoning resource sector, to the point where shipbuilders are looking to expand into this area to retain a deployable and skilled workforce.

But the company says it now has the skills to deliver the LHD project.

“In the lead up to the project, BAE Systems has made substantial investment in skills and trades to make sure we have the workforce required for the task. Being a global defense company, we also have the added advantage of being able to call on international expertise,” according to a BAE statement.

“This year alone, BAE Systems Australia has conducted 740,000 hours of work and plans to have conducted 1 million hours of work by the end of 2012,” a spokesman for the Australian Defence Force said.

But the looming gap between completion of the two LHDs and three air warfare destroyers and the next major naval shipbuilding project is also of concern. The gap was one reason Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare gave for “re-baselining” the project, stretching the interval between each ship to 18 months.

“Extending the AWD program will help avoid a decline in naval shipbuilding skills before the commencement of Australia’s largest and most complex naval project, the Future Submarine,” he said.

The minister also announced the launch of the Future Submarine Industry Skills Plan to build and sustain necessary skills for the design and fabrication of Australia’s 12 proposed conventionally powered submarines later in the decade.

“Despite the AWD slowdown, there will still be a gap between when they and the LHDs are completed and new contracts kick in. Rather than five years, there will now be a three-year gap — but a major gap, nevertheless. The ability of private sector companies to maintain skills during a construction pause of this length is questionable,” said Kym Bergmann, defense analyst and editor of Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter Magazine.

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