The fire protection sector needs to encourage more young people, particularly women, into the industry if it is going to flourish.
Like most industries, the fire protection sector is aging. Those practitioners who made their way through the golden age – the training programmes of the seventies and eighties, run by some of our biggest companies – are starting to reach retirement age.
A lack of trainees coming through the system is making it difficult for practitioners close to retirement to contemplate downing the tools and to entrust the future of the fire protection industry to the next generation. This is not purely a problem for our sector, as apprentice numbers are falling across the board.
According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), while almost 1 in 10 trade workers are apprentices or trainees, these numbers are decreasing year on year. Between 2014 and today, apprentice numbers have dropped by 22%, with only 266,565 people going through such training in Australia in the latest statistics. This is likely due to a number of factors, but clearly the diversity of careers currently in the market place is increasing options for school leavers, to the detriment of the trades.
While Federal Government initiatives such as the Apprentice Kickstart programme are designed to reverse this trend, it only appears to be slowing, rather than stopping, the decline.
An additional problem for fire protection is that the lion’s share of these apprenticeships is going to the traditional trades of electrical, plumbing and building. Fire protection is often an industry that people come to after first embarking on another career or pathway, and the level of knowledge or understanding of our sector in the general public is relatively low.
Lower apprentice numbers are also affecting industry diversity, given that the vast majority of apprentices are male. Women still currently only make up 25% of the intake of all apprenticeships, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this percentage is much lower for our sector. A low number of candidates, with an even lower proportion of females, means that the industry risks becoming too homogeneous and underserviced.
We need to be able to attract trainees and apprentices who can learn to design, install, maintain and assess fire-safety systems. We want new practitioners who are interested in innovation and the development of the industry to improve fire protection into the future. To achieve this, more school leavers should be considering a career in fire protection, and the sector needs to consider how to attract them initially, rather than through the traditional pathway of building, plumbing and electrical work.
But existing companies will also need to invest in training new participants and the industry needs to have standard national qualifications, so that those entering the industry have been trained in the same units and hold comparable skills.
We need more people to realise from the outset that this is a rewarding career in itself, supported by a qualifications framework that creates career pathways for practitioners.
But we also need to address the lack of diversity. With an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school, and programmes to encourage more young women to consider engineering and trades, the time is right to position fire protection as a preferred industry. FPA Australia believes very strongly that increasing trainee numbers, and providing more opportunities, will help to make our industry more viable and sustainable.
By reaching out to secondary or tertiary students and promoting fire protection as an interesting career choice, we hope that we can both increase interest in our sector and encourage more diversity.
These themes – clearer qualifications and more diversity – are explored in Fire Australia 2021, which is being held from 11 to 13 May at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. The programme has a series of presentations designed to stimulate thoughts and solutions to these ongoing issues, and lay out a roadmap to achieving a better industry.
We need talented, skilled and innovative women and men to see this industry as a first-choice option for building their career. Our sector is essential to the safety of people and property– we need to attract the best to ensure that everyone continues to be protected.
For more information, go to fpaa.com.au