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Defence shipbuilder Austal sets women-only apprentice target

Apprentice fabricator Matilda Hobbins flirted with a career as a travel agent and spent a couple of years in employment limbo before joining Austal.

She’s now working on the 21 steel-hulled patrol boats Australia will provide to Pacific nations as Canberra looks to shore up influence in the region.

The 23-year-old said she always wanted to work in an engineering field, but it could be intimidating walking into a vast workshop dominated by men.

Sense of camaraderie

Ms Hobbins said she appreciated the support and sense of camaraderie that came with having more women in the mix.

“It is very daunting going into a workshop when you haven’t had workshop experience,” she said.

“I’ve had people come up and say ‘no offence or anything, but why are you here?'”

The second part of Austal’s recruiting plan involves luring mature-aged women from the retail sector and home duties into shipbuilding.

It is working with West Australian authorities on women-only pre-employment courses and will alter its rostering to offer more family-friendly shifts suited to job sharing.

Mr Singleton said Austal had realised it was tapping into only 50 per cent of the workforce and wanted to get to a tipping point where it was recognised as an employer of women and a good place for women to work.

The women-only initiative was not set in stone; if an outstanding male candidate “was knocking down the door”, Austral would be open to giving him an apprenticeship. Mr Singleton said the gender target was justified because women were under-represented in the trades they require and the gender imbalance points to their being disadvantaged in job-seeking there.

“We recognised a while back that if we don’t break through a critical mass of females in the organisation, we’ll never get there,” he said.

Excess capacity

“The first step is the apprentices. The second step was to say, ‘well what about mature women who are at home who perhaps ordinarily would get attracted to retail jobs or things like that they can do during the day’ and attracting some of those into the organisation as well.”

Austal is having trouble filling about 200 jobs to augment its 1200-strong workforce at its Henderson and Naval Base shipbuilding yards south of Perth, with spots for fabricators, welders, engineers, boilermakers and others going begging.

The female focus will not solve Austal’s skills shortage in Western Australia overnight, but is a start in a region where its shipbuilding rival Civmec has won a big chunk of $4 billion in work on Australia‘s new fleet of offshore patrol boats and the nearby industrial hub of Kwinana is a focus of the state’s lithium boom.

Chinese company Tianqi is building a $700 million lithium hydroxide plant in Kwinana, where Chile’s SQM and ASX-listed partner Kidman Resources plan a similar investment.

New York Stock Exchange-listed Albemarle is behind two other lithium processing plants elsewhere in Western Australia where the big three in iron ore – Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group – are building new mines in the Pilbara.

Mr Singleton said the pick-up in mining had already soaked up excess capacity in the jobs market.

“We are seeing that it is significantly harder to recruit than it was 12 months ago,” he said.



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