Hundreds of jobs in the multibillion-dollar renewable energy sector remain unfilled due to a chronic shortage of qualified tradespeople in the Hunter.
The shortage, which industry blames in part on a lack of investment in vocational training in areas including electrical, engineering and boilermaking, threatens to derail the Hunter's clean energy transition.
Leading Hunter manufacturing firm Ampcontrol has told the Newcastle Herald it needs 100 skilled workers as part of its expansion plans.
Industry groups will participate in a summit next month which aims to find solutions to the deepening crisis.
"It's as much of a crisis as a crying shame because there are so many good organisations pushing for investment in the Hunter and the renewable energy zones but unless something changes soon there won't be enough people to do the work," said Andy Leadbeatter, managing director of Edgeworth-based firm Reclaim Solar Energy.
"We are looking to do some work on the renewable energy zone out west and there is just a dearth of workers; you would be lucky to find an electrician."
On this issue: New federal government 'must lead' Hunter transition
In addition to workforce shortages, experts have warned that poor transition planning, including under-investment in training for displaced coal mining and power station workers, is likely to have disastrous consequences for years to come.
Data recently presented to the Victorian Parliament showed two out of three workers who lost their jobs following the shock closure of the Hazelwood Power Station in 2017 had not found new employment.
"Hazelwood closed with very little planning in place for its workforce. It shows the consequences of not planning the transition well can be pretty significant," research director at the University of Technology's Institute for Sustainable Futures Chris Briggs said.
Ampcontrol presently employs about 650 people across the region. Its expansion plans include the recruitment of about another 100 people.
Despite its size and profile, executive general manager of people and engagement Leigh Stefanszyn said the company had found itself in a "tug-of-war for talent", particularly for roles in advanced manufacturing, engineering and technology.
"Ampcontrol has been rapidly accelerating its expansion in renewable energy manufacturing over the past few years. This has highlighted the need to have a suitably skilled and diverse workforce in place to meet our customers' demands as the industry diversifies and transitions to a low-carbon economy," she said.
"We have had to be very innovative to attract and retain talent as well as develop our people's capability ensuring we have the right skills, not only for the now but for the jobs of the future. With a strong focus on research and development and technological advancement, we are continually thinking three to five years in advance but we need to start developing these skills now.
"We see our association and continued support with education, community, and business as integral to tackling this challenge across the region as we position the Hunter as an energy powerhouse."
More on this issue: Government must support displaced Hunter workers during energy transition
The Institute for Sustainable Futures recently completed a research project for Infrastructure Australia about the future demand for renewables as well as skill shortages. It also advised the state government on how to maximise local jobs within the state's five renewable energy zones.
"The bottom line is that we're very unlikely to be able to build all the projects in the pipeline, because we just don't have the volume of people. There's an unprecedented pipeline of projects on the way and renewables make up a fair chunk of them," Dr Chris Briggs said.
The researchers also found the current skills shortage was likely to get worse before it improved due to a lack of investment in training.
"Investment in training has been relatively low for a variety of reasons. The sector has had real boom and bust cycles depending on government support. It's very hard for people to feel secure investing in training in that context," Dr Briggs said.
The under-resourcing of TAFE over several decades emerged as a key theme in evidence to last year's Upper House inquiry into the sustainability of the state's electricity system. The committee which oversaw the inquiry made several recommendations about the need for increased investment in education and training in the rapidly growing area of clean energy technologies in regions such as the Hunter.
The Institute for Sustainable Futures has also recommended the Hunter be considered as a strategic region for the development of a renewable energy workforce.
"When the Hunter renewable energy zone was announced it was subscribed several times over with renewable and storage projects," Dr Briggs said. "It could be a strategic reason for developing the renewable energy workforce for inland areas because it has the depth of labour market in engineering and the industry base to support it."
We are looking to do some work on the renewable energy zone out west and there is just a dearth of workers; you would be lucky to find an electrician.
Federal Labor has committed $10 million for an Energy Futures Skills Centre at the University of Wollongong and $2.5 million for a Renewable Energy Training facility at Wollongong TAFE.
The Hunter Jobs Alliance has called for the adoption of a model similar to one used by Victoria's Federation University and Ballarat TAFE. The organisations worked with renewable energy companies to secure Victorian government funding to build and operate an Asia Pacific Renewable Energy Training Centre that will train 600 workers a year.
"We saw an announcement for an Illawarra Energy Skills Centre at TAFE. Fair play to the Illawarra for getting themselves organised to advocate for this, but we have a lot of advantages with renewable energy zones here and over the range, innovative manufacturing, good transport links and a growing population. Newcastle and the Hunter should become the main NSW base for training workers in new industries," Hunter Jobs Alliance coordinator Warrick Jordan said.
"At the end of the day we need to make it easy for young people to picture what these careers look like, and for businesses to be confident we can supply skilled workers.
"We're in a highly competitive world and we should be doing more to back our educators to train the next generation. There's no better signal we could send than planting a flag in the ground and setting up a well-funded facility that can attract students, workers and industry."
Business Hunter recently established the Hunter Future Workforces Committee that will focus on collaborations to build a pipeline and solutions to workforce transition, attraction and retention across key economic growth sectors.
"We are hearing quite starkly and frequently from businesses that they need support and sense of 'the regional plan' to address workforce pipeline issues," Business Hunter chief executive Bob Hawes said. "The remedy for the current situation is well beyond the control of an individual business or industry sector."
Business Hunter is hosting the Powering Business 2050 Industries Summit in June.
"For the Hunter to be appropriately workforce equipped we need to attract, skill, retrain the right mix of students, trainees, migrants and families to the region to populate the workforce matrix and encourage our workforce to come, stay and grow with us," Mr Hawes said. "We also need to prepare existing workforce to embrace new work opportunities - that doesn't happen without planning."
In an effort to address the skills crisis, TAFE NSW (Newcastle) will offer a fee-free Diploma of Renewable Energy and an Undergraduate Certificate in Renewable Energy commencing in semester two, 2022.
TAFE also offers five renewable energy microcredentials which can be credited towards the diploma and undergraduate certificate: They include foundation studies in renewable energy, principles of electrical engineering, grid connected PV solar power systems, energy storage systems and wind energy conversion systems.
NSW Minister for Skills and Training Alister Henskens said TAFE NSW had seen a record number of enrolments in electrotechnology and manufacturing trades across the Hunter.
"The Hunter is an economic powerhouse of our state that is booming with investment and job opportunities," he said. "Ensuring industry has access to a strong pipeline of skilled workers is critical to capitalising on these opportunities and helping the Hunter thrive for generations to come.
"I have met with business and industry leaders in the Hunter to discuss the challenges and opportunities we face when it comes to skills attraction and retention. The NSW government is working closely with industry to identify the skills needed, and affording retraining and upskilling opportunities for workers transitioning from traditional energy sector jobs."