Chapter 4. Taking a sector-based approach to workplace training – Sydney Metro Case Study

This chapter presents the first case study of this report looking at Sydney Metro, Australia’s biggest public transport project. Sydney metro demonstrates the value of targeting apprenticeship programmes to sectors of the local economy. This case study also demonstrates the important co-ordination role that local leadership can take in bringing together key stakeholders to create tailored solutions to various skills and workforce development challenges.



Sydney generates over 70% of New South Wales,’ and more than one-fifth of Australia’s gross output, competing with other international cities in the region such as Singapore and Hong Kong as a home for global investment (Infrastructure NSW, 2014[27]). The city is one of the most liveable cities in the world, with a population of 4.3 million expected to increase to 6.2 million by 2036 (Sydney Metro, 2016[28]). This growth means new transport infrastructure will be required to support the economy and Sydney’s liveability.

In response to this anticipated demand, Sydney Metro is a key infrastructure project within New South Wales (NSW), and currently the largest public transport project in Australia, with over AUD 20 billion to be invested across the Northwest, Southwest and Central Sydney regions (Sydney Metro, 2017[29]; Sydney Metro, 2016[28]). So far, over 26 000 people have worked on the project that is scheduled to deliver Australia’s first fully automated rail service, almost doubling the capacity of services entering the Sydney CBD (Sydney Metro, 2017[30]). Besides its scale and geographical spread, the project also has a long timeframe, Sydney Metro includes (Sydney Metro, 2017[29]; Sydney Metro, 2016[28]): 1) Sydney Metro Northwest, with a 2013-2019 delivery timeframe; 2) Sydney Metro City & Southwest - 2015-2024 delivery timeframe; and 3) The proposed Sydney Metro West (estimated timeframe of late 2020s).

Figure 4.1. Sydney Metro Project

Source: Sydney Metro 2017

Key employment and skills challenges

Skill shortages in the region

Sydney Metro is being delivered at a time of unprecedented levels of infrastructure development in NSW and across Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016[31]; Infrastructure NSW, 2014[27]; Wade, 2014[32]; Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, 2018[33]). The project involves extensive and complex tunnelling work and uses of state-of-the-art technology in construction and railing (Sydney Metro, 2017[34]). Delivering the project is challenging because a large proportion of workers in key industries do not have any formal training, and the workforce is ageing and lacks diversity, particularly in the rail and construction sectors. Furthermore, there is a reduced number of young people participating in VET programmes associated with the rail and construction sector.

Figure 4.2. Drivers of skill shortage affecting Sydney Metro delivery and operation

Note: Factors understood by Sydney Metro to drive skill shortage affecting their delivery and operation.

Source: Supplied by Author. Authors elaboration based on interviews with Sydney Metro.

Competing projects

To deliver the Sydney Metro project, there is a need for general civil construction workers and engineers. Many of the occupations featured in NSW’s skills shortage list are of high priority for the project (e.g. construction estimators, surveyors, civil engineers professionals and technicians). This is happening at a time of unprecedented levels of competition for other infrastructure projects in NSW, where $49 billion worth of infrastructure investment is in the pipeline for transport projects and billions more for ports, airports, electricity generation, and other projects (Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, 2018[33]; Wade, 2014[32]). The resulting increased demand for skilled construction, engineering and transport/rail tradespeople, combined with other factors has led to skills shortages in construction trades, including carpenters and joiners, painting trade workers, fibrous plasterers, plumbers and cabinetmakers for the second consecutive year in 2016 (Australian Government, 2017[35]).

High proportion of low-skilled workers

In 2016, 31% of those employed in heavy/civil engineering, building and construction and 36% of those in rail transport did not have a technical qualification (i.e. their highest level of educational attainment was Year 12) and were not attending education/training (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016[31]). Employers in the construction sector have reported hiring unqualified but experienced applicants or final year apprentices due to their inability to recruit suitably qualified applicants (Australian Government, 2017[35]).

New technologies

In construction, key emerging technologies (e.g. use of computer applications, new materials and equipment, and artificial intelligence) that enable both complex construction work and provide potential improvements (such as remote operation and greater safety, mobility and precision) create new skills and training needs (Airbus Innovation, 2017[36]; Allen, Brasil and Manley, 2017[37]). In rail operations, the adoption of fully automated trains and other forms of autonomous operation translate into new workplace and job designs, which have new skills requirements. For example, being able to use communications technology and big data generated by wireless signalling and sensors for predictive monitoring and maintenance systems is now a key requirement (Australian Industry Standards, 2017[38]).

In addition to technical skills, there is increasing demand for employees with solid foundational skills, language, literacy and numeracy (LLN), and soft skills, such as communication and problem-solving, both in construction and rail. Being able to manage and communicate new safety standards is also becoming a priority as these industries embrace new technologies. The fact that a significant proportion of the workforce in these industries is formed by low-skilled workers, catering for higher skills level requirements means that not only will vocational training need to adapt, but also that significant efforts in terms of upskilling are needed (Pascutto, 2016[39]).

Low training uptake

Increased construction activity, combined with high numbers of low-skilled workers, and declining VET enrolments in the related sectors of engineering, building and information technology means the supply of qualified workers has been problematic (Australian Government, 2017[35]). This decline is also found across VET more broadly (Atkinson and Stanwick, 2016[40]). The number of suitable applicants per job vacancy in construction and engineering trades has been declining (Australian Government, 2017[35]), and research shows that approximately half of all apprenticeship contracts in the trade are not completed (Bednarz, 2014[41]; NCVER, 2016[42]). Part of the decline in VET uptake can be explained by the increased preference being given to higher education. There is a widespread perception amongst employers/industry that vocational education is seen as a second choice in Australia, discouraged by parents and not supported by career guidance provided in schools, especially for high performing students. Lower-performing students are three times more likely to follow a VET pathway (NCVER, 2013[43]).

Ageing workforce

Because of the decreasing uptake of vocational training, the ageing of the construction and transport/rail workforce becomes a problem. In the rail industry, for example, 52% of the workforce is aged over 45 (Australian Industry Standards, 2017[38]). There is a pressing need to expand the pool of qualified employees aged 25 and under to meet ongoing industry need for a qualified and talented workforce.

Lack of diversity

In Australia, women currently form 11% of people employed in heavy/civil engineering, building and construction, and 20% of those in rail transport (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018[44]). VET programme enrolments for 2017 show that men dominate VET qualifications in some fields. For instance, men represented around 90% of VET qualifications in both engineering and architecture and building, and almost 75% in information technology. While women currently form almost half of all VET students, and female enrolments have increased, they are concentrated in the health, education, personal services and management/commerce related qualifications (NCVER, 2018[45]).

Indigenous people are also underrepresented in heavy/civil engineering, building and construction and in rail transport across Australia – in 2016 they formed 2% of the workforce in these industries, while they were 3% of the working age population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016[46]). This is in spite of the fact that Indigenous people were well represented (i.e. over 4%) in VET courses in IT, Building and Engineering in 2016 (NCVER, 2018[45]; Windley, 2017[47]).

To counterbalance the effects of increased demand and decreased supply of qualified workers and the need for higher-level skills posed by new technologies in the construction and rail industries, increasing uptake will require increased participation from groups that have traditionally been under-represented in these industries.


Youth unemployment and disengagement are also a problem that Sydney Metro is trying to tackle, particularly in Greater Western Sydney, where a major part of the project is being delivered. Western Sydney has had slightly higher youth unemployment rates compared to NSW in general. Most recently, the South West and Inner West Sydney had an average youth unemployment rate of 11.8% and 12.2% respectively, as compared to 10.3% for NSW over the 12 months from August 2017 to August 2018 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018[44]). Some studies had shown that there are pockets where youth unemployment has been as high as 26% (O’Neill, 2017[48]). Young people living in Western Sydney are challenged by factors like poverty, lower education attainment, and concentration of industries with high risk of automation and change (e.g. hospitality and retail) – many who work, are employed on a casual or part-time basis (O’Neill, 2017[48]). Data also shows that youth disengagement was also higher in Western Sydney (7% in 2011, compared to 4% in the rest of Greater Sydney) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017[49]). Another regional workforce related issue is long-term unemployment, which has been consistently higher in NSW compared to Australia as a whole (in 2016, the annual average of long-term unemployed people in NSW was 26%, compared with the Australian national figure of 24%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017[49]).

The development of a Sydney Metro workforce development strategy

Given the scale of Sydney Metro and the challenges described in the previous, workforce development was a key focus for Sydney Metro’s delivery. When the project started six years ago, workforce development goals were presented as part of social sustainability commitments and were seen as a value-add generated by Sydney Metro. However, the new context of an increasing level of infrastructure development in NSW and rapid technological change has created the need for a more deliberate approach. As a result, the Sydney Metro Workforce Development Strategy has been a key element of the project’s business case. To develop a strategy with appropriate priorities, objectives and measures/targets, Sydney Metro undertook extensive research and consultation with industry/employers, government, and the training sector, to gather intelligence around the (Sydney Metro, 2016[28]; Sydney Metro, 2017[30]):

  • existing landscape in the construction and rail industries in terms of workforce supply and skills levels and what was needed going forward;

  • current levels of training uptake, types of qualifications, quality of training design and delivery;

  • existing NSW and Australian Government policy targets and legislative requirements for infrastructure projects related to job creation, business and workforce development, and the inclusion of diverse and disadvantaged groups;

  • Underrepresented diversity and inclusion groups within the community.

The result of this intelligence work is a strategy that incorporates structured government, industry and training sector partnerships for the delivery of a highly skilled and transferable workforce.

Table 4.1. Sydney Metro Northwest workforce development target and actual outputs, in July 2018

Project Target

Actual  to date

New Sustainable Jobs



New Sustainable Jobs GWS (Number of the workers from Greater Western Sydney in Sustainable Jobs)



Apprentices/Trainees over 26 weeks



20% of the Workforce from Greater Western Sydney



20% of the Workforce to participate in nationally recognised training



Diversity Target (overall target to employ workers in any of the following under-represented groups):

  • People with a  (registered) disability 

  • People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD)

  • Young people under 25



Disadvantaged target (overall target to employ workers in any of the following under-represented groups):

  • Long term unemployed ( over 26 weeks)

  • Young people not in education, employment or training ( over 13 weeks)

  • Single parents of school age children



Work experience placements, education placements, graduate placements (number of individual placements)



ANZ SMEs participating in the supply chain



Source: Data supplied by Sydney metro.

Figure 4.3. Sydney Metro workforce development strategic priorities

Source: Supplied by Author. Authors elaboration based on interviews with Sydney Metro

The approach to achieving outcomes linked to these priorities combines:

  • Translation of strategic priorities into contractual requirements – contractors are required to deliver minimum workforce development and industry participation targets, and are given the opportunity, during the tendering phase, to propose methods and additional targets to suit their own project delivery.

  • Industry and training sector engagement, with contractors and training providers working alongside state and national governments, to create partnerships around delivering targets, and also to gather intelligence to inform the strategy and its delivery.

  • Developing flagship Sydney Metro led programs to bring stakeholders together, support contractors in the delivery of workforce development targets and achieve consistency across all contractors.

  • Ensuring performance monitoring and management, to keep track of outcomes and of what contractors are delivering, and also to inform improvement and refinement of the strategy.

Using public procurement to deliver skills training

The main mechanism to deliver the Workforce Development and Industry Participation Strategy is to embed its targets into contract requirements and invite potential contractors to bid on particular targets. Contractors are expected to develop plans establishing how targets will be met through their project delivery, and are required to report on a regular basis about their performance against these targets. The Strategy is aligned with NSW state government policies to enable business, employment and entrepreneurship via its procurement directives (NSW Government, 2016[50]; NSW Government, 2017[51]). Minimum requirements include, but are not limited to:

  • 20% of jobs are for the local workforce, with workers employed for a minimum of 26 weeks;

  • 20% of the workforce must undertake upskilling accredited training. Training must be above business as usual standards to support workforce transferability and mitigate skill shortages/gaps;

  • All workers in high risk occupations are required to undertake mandatory accredited pre-commencement training;

  • Targets for apprentices and trainees working on site - minimum numbers will vary to suit the scope and scale of each contract package;

  • Employment and training targets for under-represented groups, including Indigenous workers, women, young people, long-term unemployed, humanitarian programme entrants1, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Development of partnerships through an advisory group

Sydney Metro identified that delivering the envisaged level of change would require the development of a strong industry-government-training partnership. In response, Sydney Metro initiated the creation of the Skills and Employment Advisory Group (SEAG) in 2014. SEAG was established in a strategic stakeholder forum model, which “is believed to be the only forum of its type, bringing together NSW and Australian governments, industry bodies, employers and training bodies” (Sydney Metro, 2017[30]). The SEAG and its members share an interest in Sydney Metro’s workforce development objectives and provide a forum for feedback among local stakeholders. Together, their focus continues to be informing, advising and supporting the delivery of the Workforce Development Strategy and associated programmes by sharing current information and knowledge related to industry training and employment; assisting in identifying and addressing skills shortages and gaps based on skills profiles generated by each major contract; ffacilitating the conversation between industry/employers and the training sector; enabling the identification of key gaps and needs to be addressed in order to achieve the envisaged workforce development outcomes; assisting in identifying relevant funding sources; and promoting partnerships with government agencies (Sydney Metro, 2017[30]; Transport for NSW, 2017[52]).

The members, who are senior managers with decision-making responsibilities meet bi-monthly and represent Transport for NSW (Sydney Metro Delivery Office); NSW Department of Industry; Training Services NSW (State Training Authority); TAFE NSW; Australian Government Department of Education and Training; Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business; Sydney Metro Principal Contractors; PwC Skills for Australia ; and Australian Industry Standards. Other bodies are often invited to participate in discussions, such as local governments, representatives of other infrastructure projects, Jobactive providers, and diversity advocates.

Workforce development programmes introduced by Sydney Metro

Sydney Metro Industry Curriculum Program

Sydney Metro Industry Curriculum (SMIC) is a mandatory pre-commencement accredited training to meet minimum levels of competency for critical occupations within Sydney Metro. The objective is to establish new skills benchmarks, support the improvement of work health and safety, and increase the quality and productivity of the workforce. Critical skills areas identified so far are demolition; tunneling; general civil construction; rail; heavy haulage and leadership/supervisory skills across all industry disciplines (i.e. mandatory training for supervisors and team leaders).

Programs have been developed in partnership with registered training organisations (RTOs) to address Sydney Metro’s needs, contractor requirements and scope of work. In addition, as part of the Aboriginal Participation Strategy, all workers at supervisory level are required to undertake cultural awareness training to build skills associated with successful engagement and retention of Indigenous employees.

Sydney Metro Upskilling Program

This program translates into targets that contractors are required to meet in terms of up-skilling a pre-determined percentage of their workforce throughout the life of the project. Training is contractor-led to ensure it meets both business and individual training needs, and must be accredited and extend beyond compliance/legislative-required training (e.g. licensing). During the bidding phase, contractors are invited to respond to this requirement by providing solutions that ensure new technologies are supported by new competency standards.

Sydney Metro Apprenticeship Program

Through SEAG, contractors expressed challenges in retaining an apprentice for the full apprenticeship due to the nature and duration of their specific projects. In response to this, the Sydney Metro Apprenticeship Program was developed with the collaboration of the lead Group Training Organisation (GTO) and launched in July 2017. Under this model, apprentices are hired by the GTO as a Sydney Metro apprentice, rather than being employed by a particular contractor, and rotate between contractors/projects as required. Contractors agree to host apprentices/trainees for an agreed period of time, as determined and facilitated by the GTO.

The model has a two-fold approach that ensures apprentices are able to complete their apprenticeship within Sydney Metro and contractors are able to meet or exceed their contractual targets (Sydney Metro, 2017[30]). The Program also provides mentoring and additional training and support as required, with the aim of reducing attrition. The expectation is that the Program will make Sydney Metro apprenticeships more attractive to high-performing students and, at the same time, support the inclusion of under-represented groups and increase workforce diversity. As of July 2018, the following has been reported:

  • over 40 apprentices and trainees have participated in the programme

  • 13% Aboriginal participation rate

  • 23% female participation

  • 60% of participants are under 25

  • Retention rate currently at 90%

Pre-Employment Program

Through the research and consultations with major contractors, led by SEAG, it became apparent that often it was not the lack of technical skills that prohibited unemployed candidates from being employed, but the lack of soft skills such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving. As a result, the Pre-Employment Program was launched in November 2014, to equip long term unemployed candidates with key technical skills and the ability to communicate and work as part of a highly functioning team, with the involvement of potential employers in the training and mentoring process. One of the program’s key approaches is ‘team teaching’, where language, literacy and numeracy specialist teachers work alongside students on the technical components of the course, with small group practical and assessment activities requiring participants to work collaboratively in order to successfully complete tasks. As of July 2018, Sydney Metro Pre-Employment Programs have been delivered with the following outcomes:

  • 93 Participants

  • 96% Successful completions

  • 41% Aboriginal Participation

  • 80% Participant employment outcomes

  • 9% of participants through Prisoner Release Program

Infrastructure Skills Centres

Funded by both state and federal governments, three Infrastructure Skills Centres (Western, South West, and Inner Sydney) were launched in July 2017, to provide up to date infrastructure skills training, mentoring for apprentices and trainees, and to connect students to jobs. In collaboration with TAFE NSW, the centres host Sydney Metro workers undertaking pre-commencement training, along with those enrolled in the Pre-Employment Program.

The centres also aim to address skills and jobs requirements across other major construction projects, such as the Western Sydney Airport and WestConnex. It is expected that over 20 000 workers will receive training in the centres over the next five years. Integrated employment services, i.e. on site Jobactive providers, will advertise vacancies and link job seekers to jobs, within Sydney Metro. It is expected that training will be industry-led and co-designed, in a responsive and flexible way. Courses currently available include pre-employment and job-readiness programs; Sydney Metro Industry Curriculum; Work health and safety programs; Health and wellbeing; Technical, leadership and management training programs; Apprentice and traineeship support, and Aboriginal Participation programs.

Program outcomes

Given Sydney Metro’s size and its strategic approach to workforce development, the project is creating new benchmarks and setting new expectations in workforce development for large-scale projects. Different elements of the strategy, such as the pre-employment program, and the advisory group (SEAG) have been recognised as best practices and replicated elsewhere both in NSW and other parts of Australia, including major projects such as WestConnex, Sydney Light Rail, and Capital Metro (Canberra), and in other sectors including hospitality, logistics, commercial cleaning and general construction.

The NSW Department of Industry has launched the Infrastructure Skills Legacy Program (ISLP), which builds on some of the training and employment requirements introduced by Sydney Metro (which is now a ‘demonstration project’ within the program). The aim of the ISLP is to capitalise on the record levels of infrastructure investment to increase the number of skilled construction workers and create pathways to employment across NSW.

Much of what is now part of the Workforce Development Strategy is the result of building trust, developing genuine partnerships and convincing stakeholders that having a shared approach to delivering the strategy produces gains not only for the project but also at a business level, through increased productivity and safety.

In terms of measureable outcomes, hundreds of employees have already benefited from Sydney Metro Workforce Development programs. Many workers with previously low levels of LLN (43% of the 2 400 SMIC participants) or no formal qualifications (55% of SMIC participants to date) have now received appropriate support and accredited training that meets Sydney Metro’s quality standards. The Pre-Employment Program has also proven to be successful, with 80% of participants transitioning to employment.

Lessons learned

Sydney Metro’s workforce development trajectory demonstrates that it takes time and effort to evolve from simply adding training targets to contracts into a more collaborative key stakeholder model, where stakeholders invest their own resources into the conception and development of tailored solutions. Some of the following challenges and key drivers of the outcomes achieved so far were highlighted by stakeholders from Sydney Metro.

Challenges faced during implementation

Establishing partnerships

Initially, collaboration within the SEAG between different government agencies (state and national) and between government and industry was challenging – government agencies were not used to collaborating in a systematic way, while industry partners saw each other as competitors and were not prepared to share information and practices. Sydney Metro took on the role of co-ordinating the group, and after months of meetings and working together around workforce development goals, Sydney Metro was able to convince stakeholders of the value of adopting a shared approach to deliver business level benefits.

Setting ambitious but feasible targets

From the project's inception, there was a clear intention of exceeding existing NSW Government requirements by integrating training and employment requirements into tender documents. However, this was not possible at first – commercial teams within government and industry partners both expressed concerns about the costs and risks imposed on contracts by including these obligations.

A case needed to be made to convince stakeholders of the business sense of this strategy. This was done by gathering evidence of the benefits of this approach from similar projects and getting leadership support. Sydney Metro now requires tenderers to include in any tender proposals their strategies for contributing to Sydney Metro’s workforce development objectives, which means bidders now compete with each other to propose the best solutions. This is proving successful, not only because of the creative solutions being proposed but also because successful bidders have ownership of these solutions. It is expected that this will help to achieve outcomes, although this is yet to be measured.

Sydney Metro has also learnt from the first tendering round that contractual targets needed to be more specific and adapted to each type of contractor and project delivery phase. Initially, targets were quite broad (e.g. 15% of the workforce has to be formed by trainees/apprentices), when, depending on the specific work being contracted, this was sometimes beyond and other times below what a contractor could accommodate. The solution was to establish minimum requirements across the whole project with specific requirements for each contract package.

Drivers of success

Collaborative approach

From the project initiation stage, Sydney Metro investigated possible relationships with state and government agencies, employers and industry associations. Starting in 2013, the focus was on helping organisations involved in achieving their objectives, through Sydney Metro, to achieve mutual benefits. In early 2014, the SEAG was established to bring together all organisations and their expertise with the goal of achieving better outcomes. Initially there were difficulties as competing organisations and industry partners were unwilling to share information and practices. Later in 2014 this changed as industry competitors “realised the benefits of the shared approach and also increased their ability to engage directly with government and industry agencies” (Parry, 2017[53]).

Having a collaborative approach between governments, industry/employers and training sectors, via SEAG, ensures the strategy is appropriately tackling workforce issues experienced by employers, encouraging industry/employer buy-in. It is also appropriate for addressing workforce issues experienced across the whole of NSW and nationally. This collaborative approach also means that those government agencies which are more directly responsible for training and workforce development outcomes, but not directly responsible for delivering Sydney Metro, can support and drive Sydney Metro’s workforce development programs. This was not always easy and industry partners had to be prepared to share information and practices within a framework that was built upon member trust.

Leadership from the client

Strong leadership from the client perspective (i.e. Transport for NSW) has meant that it has been possible to persist with the creation of partnerships, and also to ensure consistency – so critical for a project that is essentially being delivered through many different contract packages. Government leadership also facilitates the scalability and transferability of workforce development solutions.

Contractual obligations backed by flagship initiatives

Initiatives that specifically enable workforce development targets, such as the Apprenticeship Program and the Pre-Employment Program, has helped in achieving the workforce development contract requirements. Individual contractors will not necessarily know the most effective mechanisms and approaches to deliver the envisaged workforce development outcomes, but having these initiatives creates a simple avenue for employers to skill and support their workforce.


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[37] Allen, R., N. Brasil and C. Manley (2017), Future skills and training: A practical resource to help identify future skills and training, (accessed on 29 May 2018).

[40] Atkinson, G. and J. Stanwick (2016), Trends in VET: policy and participation, (accessed on 1 June 2018).

[44] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018), SA4 - Summary Data, August 2018,

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[51] NSW Government (2017), PBD-2017-05 Construction training and skills development,

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[48] O'Neill, P. (2017), Youth Unemployment in Western Sydney, Centre for Western Sydney,

[53] Parry, C. (2017), Consultation with Sydney Metro.


[34] Sydney Metro (2017), Industry briefing November 2017,

[29] Sydney Metro (2017), Industry Briefing, April 2017.

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[52] Transport for NSW (2017), Sydney Metro Skills and Employment Advisory Group (SEAG) Terms of Reference.

[32] Wade, M. (2014), NSW seen as world's infrastructure capital thanks to $85b in projects, says Mike Baird,

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← 1. Australia’s Humanitarian Program is the visa programme for refugees and others in refugee-like situations.

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