Research — 12 October 2013

There is growing concern about the mental health toll on young apprentices who are struggling to find work in Tasmania’s shrinking building and construction industry.

The industry has shed thousands of jobs in the past two years, with apprentices bearing the brunt for companies forced to slash staff.

Tasmania’s economy remains in a dire state with new figures showing the unemployment rate is 8.5 per cent, the highest in the nation.

There are 700 fewer apprentices in training for construction trades than there were just two years ago. Signage and construction workers

One organisation has had an alarming increase in the number of apprentices who are seeking help after feeling suicidal.

Doug Vautier is the CEO of Ozhelp Tasmania, an organisation that provides mental health support to building and construction workers.

He says the number of apprentices feeling depressed and anxious has dramatically increased this year.

“They don’t have any control,” he said.

“At least once you’re qualified you can move on and do something.

“If you’re one year in two years in and there’s nowhere else to go then you’re a half qualified tradesperson with no future.”

But what concerns him most is the huge rise in apprentices saying they are suicidal.

Last year it was just 11, so far this year it is up to 22.

“That’s quite alarming. I think it’s dire in terms of young people need a future, or need to focus, on the future and without having anything to look for or anything to aim for or goals to aim for that creates an imbalance.”

Ozhelp has released a mobile phone app which gives tips on how to start conversations with someone who is struggling.

The situation for apprentices is not likely to change soon.

Economist Saul Eslake says Tasmania is experiencing recession-like conditions.

For seven straight quarters the state has had negative growth in final demand.

“It’s the longest period of consecutive decline in spending by households businesses and governments in Tasmania since this particular series began,” he said.

“Compared with the rest of Australia, Tasmania’s performance is probably as bad as its been at any time its been since the recession of the 1980s.”

In every other part of the country new construction work is well above decade averages but in Tasmania it is 3.5 per cent below.

Long road ahead

Industry veteran Bill Wedd has been hit hard by the economic downturn.

“Our volume of work is probably down 45 per cent from two years ago and that’s had a reflection on obviously the amount of employees that we have on board,” he said.

“We normally carry 30-35 employees full time and its less than 20 at the moment.”

And that includes hiring fewer apprentices.

“This is the first time in probably 35 years that we’re seriously considering not putting on a full-time apprentice this year and we’ve trained some fantastic guys over the years.”

“We’ve normally got five apprentices, we’ve got three at the moment. We’ve actually lost one apprentice this year which is a very hard thing to do.”

TasTafe’s Jon Grant says apprentices are having their contracts suspended.

“We’ve seen a 30 per cent drop in commencements of apprentices specifically in construction and we see more apprentices coming back that have had their contracts suspended,” he said.

“It’s the worst we’ve seen around confidence for quite some time.

Some apprentices, like Josh Thornton are considering moving interstate.

“I love Tassie with an absolute passion and it’s where my heart is, it’s where my family is, it’s where I call home,” he said.

“When I actually have to look to move away, it’s a serious thought the fact that we can’t even support our own Tasmanians to stay in the state.”

Saul Eslake is worried that if too many apprentices leave the industry, it may stifle economic recovery.

“The potential increase in employment in the construction sector here in Tasmania may not take place as fully as it should if there isn’t the workforce there to do it,” he said.

“And of course people coming to the state for whatever reason can’t get accommodation of the standard they want, then the influx of population Tasmania needs may not come.”

People in need of counselling are encouraged to call Lifeline on 131114 or Oz Help 1300 694 357.

This article first appeared on ABC Online on 11 October, 2013.


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