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Published 01 November 2012 04:06, Updated 02 November 2012 10:19
The skills shortage is alive and well. Building Information Modelling (BIM), the software that allows architects, engineers and contractors to work collaboratively on a project as it is designed and constructed, requires skilled operators with experience in both design and construction.
There aren’t enough of them – between 200 and 300 in Australia by one estimate – and the few that exist are in great demand.
“You have to model well,” says Perth architect Kelly Rattigan. “If you don’t model effectively, the model comes crumbling down, crashes, dies and everyone panics. The model managers are the new rock stars. They have you by the short and curlies.”
When skilled staff are in short supply, their salaries soar. Building design is no different, with small firms accusing bigger ones of poaching key people with the lure of salaries they cannot match. But the shortage also imperils the rollout of BIM more widely.
An industry report recommends that the federal government require BIM, which has the potential to greatly boost productivity, for use in procurement of all buildings from June 2016. Without sufficient skilled practitioners, however, that won’t happen.
Further, without swift action by the federal government to set uniform standards, the efficiency gains BIM offers will be reduced, the industry also warns.
BIM allows many practitioners to work on the same design and coordinate their work with others.
The software picks up conflicts – such as the location of a pillar and a door in the same position – but any project has to be managed by someone with experience in both the software and construction. Many graduates know the software but don’t have the building experience. Many of the industry’s grey-haired veterans have plenty of experience in construction but don’t know the software.
Only a few people have the right combination of both.
“It’s a good time to be a BIM manager,” Hassell’s head of BIM Toby Maple says. Maple was hired by Hassell four years ago, when he was consulting on BIM modelling and training the giant firm’s staff. “They acquired my skills rather than paying a consultant to do it,” he says.
Maple declines to disclose his salary but says pay for BIM managers is high. Hassell employs 60 of the 200 to 300 BIM managers in the country, he estimates.
“It could be in the order of upwards of $150,000 to $200,000,” he says. “That’s typically around associate-principal level for someone who’s really just learnt the software and knows how to do construction. They can leapfrog ahead of those going to university for six years. That’s pretty much what I’ve done. I was in the right place at the right time with the technology.” This skews the dynamic, as with any market.
“The current people are just rotating between the top organisations at better salaries,” says John Mitchell, a consultant and president of industry body buildingSMART Australasia, which is lobbying for the government to set industry standards for the use of BIM and mandate it for public tenders.
A report buildingSMART handed to government in June requesting funding for the establishment of a set of industry-wide BIM standards prioritised educating current practitioners in BIM skills.
“It’s aimed not at university education, it’s aimed at people in current employment so the technical modelling skills are taught properly to mature age professionals,” Mitchell says.
But the shortage is felt most acutely at the design end and it’s not pretty.
“I’ve already had one guy poached from me by Hassell,” says Rattigan, the managing director of architectural firm Formworks . “The big firms can actually afford to pay those large sums of money.”
Maple agrees there is competition but says there is nothing underhand going on.
“We don’t go out and try and poach people,” he says. “There’s been a lot of people that have wanted to come and work for Hassell because they see we’re quite advanced in the use of BIM.”
BIM managers, he says, often seek out large firms because they offer more consistent work using the software. Smaller firms, by contrast, don’t give the same opportunities, as they often switch between BIM and its CAD, an older version of design software.
“The users get quite frustrated as it’s not a quick progression to get up to speed,” he says.
That was not the case with Rattigan’s former employee, he adds.
The shortage is even more pronounced at the contracting end of projects among the firms hired to do the construction, recruiter Shane Little says.
“Typically the conditions of employment [in construction contractors] are viewed as not as attractive,” the NSW regional director for recruitment firm Hays Architecture, Shane Little, says.
“There are long hours, some are six days a week and there is a requirement to travel far distances to attend the site and watch the construction.”