Australian electricians… how do we rate?
As the number of overseas-trained electricians enter the local market, James Tinslay looks at the regional differences in apprenticeships.
Despite the concerns of some, Australia has a very functional process to take young people into electrical apprenticeships and turn them into competent electricians.
Sure, there are many arguments about apprentices who only get experience in the domestic sector or those who only get experience on large construction sites installing cable trays and the like, but overall it is a workable system.
Most of us would also like to have a national licensing system for both electricians and electrical contractors that is identical throughout the country instead of the variations in capstone testing and regulatory requirements that exist across states, but it does work.
Australia has a high standard for electricians. So what about other countries?
Most in the industry are aware that they work alongside electricians from New Zealand, the UK and South Africa to name the main settled immigrants or backpackers looking for short-term roles. These countries have similar training and assessment criteria to Australia but of course they are not identical. Once here, these overseas-trained electricians need to learn the local requirements and especially the Wiring Rules which, while having some alignment with international standards, is still very much a local document for Australia and New Zealand.
However, once we move outside these countries, things are very different. For example, in the US, there is a very strong electrical apprenticeship system in a country where the majority of young people end up in internships not apprenticeships.
The comparison between an internship and an apprenticeship is like comparing a row boat to a naval destroyer.
Like Australia, when you finish a five-year apprenticeship in America you almost certainly have a job or can readily find a job. The big difference with the apprenticeship system in the US is that most apprentices come through a system jointly sponsored by NECA (US) and The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (the union), although unions are stronger in the North of the country.
Why don’t we commonly see American electricians (called journeymen) working in Australia? There is a massive gap in general wiring arrangements between the US and Australia, but both are of high standard.
Their ‘rule book’ is the National Electrical Code and it has every bit as much enforcement as our Wiring Rules. However, their household voltage system is not 240V; rather, it’s 120V and terminology is strikingly different as are cable colour designations, etc.
For an American electrician to obtain an electrician’s licence in Australia, the time to be spent learning both on- and off-the-job is significant. This is also the case for an Australian trained electrician seeking work in the US.
A similar situation exists with our closer neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Some 10 years ago, NECA (Australia) undertook a comprehensive piece of work documenting requirements across a range of countries for the electrician qualification. This was not done with the motivation of increasing skilled migration to Australia, although the movement of skilled people around our region continues to increase.
While the differences across the region made it impossible to precisely map one area to another for the purposes of easy transportation of skills and employment throughout the region, there were many consistencies. Again, regulators played an important role in every country in the development and review of qualifications and this was reflected in the training systems of each country.
What the findings of this comprehensive project made clear is that Australia has a fundamentally different standard of entry into the electrical and communications industry because of our standard Australian apprenticeship.
Much has changed in 10 years and Australia is more multicultural than ever and this will not change. While we have a competent system to produce electricians in Australia the future should be a regional skills framework between Australia, New Zealand and our northern neighbours that will reduce the barriers to movement across the Asia-Pacific region for skilled workers.