More than just housing - boosting skills and employment opportunity in remote indigenous communities

Posted June 15, 2006

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SGS Economics and Planning Remote Housing

Like any community in Australia, remote Indigenous communities have a right to aspire to greater independence – through skills transfer and the creation of sustainable economic development initiatives and industries.

Recently, the Indigenous Housing Authority of the Northern Territory (IHANT) trialled the ‘Central Remote Indigenous Housing Delivery Model’ (the CRM) [1]. The CRM aimed to not only deliver much needed housing to indigenous communities in the Central Remote Region (CRR), but also to create real employment opportunities for the Indigenous population via an employment and training program specifically designed to skill local community members in the construction of the housing.

Providing Remote Housing Before The CRM

Historically, remote housing in the CRR had been provided by mainstream housing construction firms based in Alice Springs and Darwin. These firms would compete for (notionally) community-specific contracts to design and build remote housing. They rarely employed Indigenous people from within remote communities to assist with the construction and maintenance projects. There were neither the necessary skills on communities to provide the employment, nor the necessary skills or budgets within the local construction industry to provide the training.

Often pre-CRM, in order for the delivery of housing to be financially viable for mainstream construction firms, the firms would secure contracts with a number of communities. In many cases, this resulted in non-adapted and poorly documented standard designs across several communities. In some cases, sub-standard materials and techniques were used to minimise costs. The outcome of the historic approach was often poor quality housing that required regular and extensive maintenance.

The former approach involved considerable ‘funds leakage’ from the community, as external labour was almost exclusively used. Labour was the most expensive cost component given the remote locations involved. The situation was exacerbated because of maintenance requirements coupled with a need to import skilled maintenance workers from Alice Springs or Darwin.

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The Aims Of The CRM

The CRM had two aims. Firstly, to test cost and other efficiencies achieved by a new approach to the provision of housing on remote communities in the CRR. Secondly, to provide a training and employment program for Indigenous communities.

Construction and Cost Efficiencies. The CRM aimed for coordinated and streamlined construction contracts throughout the region by using six well documented standard housing designs. The Central Remote Regional Council in consultation with the Region’s communities, guided the development of the standard designs. Construction firms based in Alice Springs and Darwin could still be engaged to build the houses, (and in large part did), but pre-established Indigenous building and construction firms and ‘community build teams’ were actively considered and awarded contracts where they could demonstrate the necessary capability and skill and provide a competitive price.

Project planning and project management functions were no longer a part of the building contracts under the CRM. Rather, the CRM was implemented by a single project management firm. This firm supervised the documentation of the standard designs, consulted with individual communities and housing recipients about the available designs and adapted the standard designs according to each community’s expectations. The project management firm also monitored and inspected the construction of each house throughout the region.

The Training and Employment Program. More ambitiously, the CRM also aimed to use a component of the housing construction projects as a vehicle for establishing new community-based Indigenous building and maintenance teams, via the creation of a Training and Employment Program (T & E Program).

The T & E Program is a three level, nationally recognised certified course designed to train trades apprentices for the construction industry. The course runs for 5 years including 3 years of on- and off-site training followed by 2 years of ‘on-the- job’ experience. The course teaches basic skills in housing construction trades such as wall and floor tiling, wall and ceiling lining, solid plastering, painting and decorating, roofing and concrete/steel fixing and formwork.

On-site training is provided by a full-time builder/trainer, and off-site training is provided at Centralian College. Trainees are paid a real wage commensurate with the level of qualification they have obtained. Trainee wages and training costs are funded by the Commonwealth (through its mainstream employment and training programs such as STEP and CDEP) and the NT government. The cost of the builder/trainer is met via IHANT’s CRM funding.

A total of 6 communities within the CRR were initially selected for the T & E Program. This provided 24 trainee positions led by 6 builder/trainers. Each team was expected to construct 2 houses on their community. The designs and materials to be used by the teams were the same as those provided under the CRM for non-T & E Program houses (‘construction only’ houses). As the delivery of housing is vitally important in remote communities, it was expected that the T & E Program houses would be constructed in a similar amount of time taken to construct non-T & E Program houses.

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Efficiencies Delivered From The CRM

The CRM did deliver cost efficiencies when compared to the former approach, particularly for ‘construction only’ housing.

Although costing approximately $30,000 more per house to build than housing delivered under the former approach, the CRM housing product was considered to be more environmentally and culturally appropriate. As such, the economic life of the housing provided under the CRM is expected to be twice as long as that delivered under the former approach (10 years as opposed to 5 years). Utilising present value calculations, and consistent assumptions regarding regular maintenance and replacement, the delivery of housing under the CRM was estimated to save approximately $120,000 per house over a 30 year period when compared to the former model. If approximately 56 houses were provided every two years, then a saving of $138 million would be achieved by implementing the CRM.

Furthermore, because the designs of the houses were determined through a centralised process, standardised fixtures for houses were utilised. This provided coordination efficiencies in terms of streamlined access to required materials for new housing, which resulted in economy of scale and hence cost efficiencies.

If real employment was available for trainees at the end of the training period, the T & E houses were found to produce a cost neutral result in comparison to the former approach, when holistic considerations of longer term government outlays were taken into account. Without real employment, the benefits produced by the T& E Program were quickly eroded.

Despite the issue of whether cost efficiencies were being achieved, the T & E program was considered to be a huge success in the CRM and an essential first step in delivering sustainable outcomes for Indigenous communities. There were many benefits. 19 successful participants in the training and employment program obtained national training accreditation in the first round of the CRM; the quality of construction achieved by the Indigenous training teams was comparable to that achieved by non-Indigenous teams; and communities took pride that Indigenous teams of local community members had constructed housing. This contributed to a strong sense of community ownership of the training houses, and houses were less likely to be subjected to misuse and vandalism; real wages were paid to Indigenous community members participating in training, and real opportunities for on-going employment in housing could be sought – either within Indigenous communities or in main- stream construction.

In addition, the CRM introduced greater reciprocity between tenants and providers/managers of housing, particularly under the training and employment program. This has reduced community members’ expectations that houses will be provided and maintained in perpetuity, regardless of the treatment by the owners and community.

Training and employment programs can provide the basis for the development of more sound and independent economies for remote indigenous communities.

Lessons Learned From The T&E Program

There have been some important lessons learned during the initial run of the T & E Program. Timeframes involved in delivering T&E housing were substantially longer than expected, and in some cases this resulted in less housing being constructed. This was due mainly to the inefficiencies associated with having one project manager for training and construction. This shortfall has now been addressed and the second run of the T&E program has seen these roles separated. In addition, the project manager of the construction side of the T & E houses is now contractually bound to deliver the houses according to the budget allowed for construction, regardless of progress with training. In practice, this means the construction of T & E houses will not be slowed to enable the training program to keep up.

The T & E Program also showed how vitally important it was that communities were ‘ready’ to implement the Program throughout its life. Of the communities initially selected, one was withdrawn as it was not considered that it had the capacity to provide, motivate and manage suitable trainee participants. The withdrawal occurred after the Program had commenced and significant costs had already been incurred. A needs assessment, that is couched in a wider regional framework and takes into account benchmarks of communities’ ‘readiness’, is considered essential to providing good outcomes for Indigenous communities.


Training and employment programs can provide the basis for the development of more sound and independent economies for remote indigenous communities. The Indigenous housing sector has demonstrated an approach that ought to be just as achievable in other sectors critical to remote Indigenous communities, such as education and health.

Fundamental to the approach are partnerships between government and remote communities. The role of the government is to not only establish, (initially) fund and implement the programs, but to assist in finding ways to increase and support the capacity of communities to manage the programs. Once the right capacity is present, both the government and remote communities have a role to ensure that training progresses to its completion.

The evaluation of the CRM has shown, however, that real employment opportunities for local communities must be present if sustainable outcomes are to result. Gains in real employment are vital if remote areas are to claim back many of the economically valuable roles currently played by ‘outsiders’. This would allow for better retention of economic wealth within remote communities and it may also be the first vital step in achieving the ultimate aim of creating sustainable Indigenous Industries, a goal that is held by many people within Indigenous communities.

[1] The CRM was applied to 15 remote Indigenous communities within the CRR.

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SGS Economics Planning Marcus Spiller
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