Yamba Welding & Engineering managing director Bill Collingburn.
Yamba Welding & Engineering managing director Bill Collingburn.

READY FOR RECOVERY: Jobs growth, expansion in face of crisis

WHILE many companies are on the brink of collapse due to the COVID-19 crisis, Yamba Welding and Engineering is surging ahead with plans of expansion.

Apart from enforcing heightened hygiene and social distancing measures, it's business as usual on the workshop floor at Yamba, while management invests offshore to secure the company's future.

On March 31 the locally-owned boat building business acquired New Zealand design company Naiad, who has partnered with YWE to build vessels since 2010.

YWE managing director Bill Collingburn said the acquisition meant greater control over where and how vessels were built, and as a result he expects to grow his Yamba-based workforce, where in 2019 he employed 34 people with an average age of 28.

It's a rare position for small to medium-sized businesses to be in the current economic climate and a beacon of hope for the Clarence Valley.

"When the company came up for sale we saw it as a way forward to lock in our future work with defence, marine rescue and other organisations," Mr Collingburn said.

"We think this will at least double our current staff here in Australia within the next 12 to 18 months. That means more apprenticeships, and there are a lot of young kids round here looking for jobs who don't want to go to the cities."

However, with the workshop in Yamba Industrial Estate already operating at full production capacity, that expansion depends heavily on rezoning approval for the Palmers Island Marine Industrial Planning Proposal currently in the hands of NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, or else moving operations interstate.

Regardless of the outcome, Mr Collingburn has his eyes firmly set on the future and a strong message in terms of building a resilient nation. He believes it is critically important for Australia to be self-sufficient in order to handle further unforeseen disasters, and that means reversing the trend of sending manufacturing overseas.

"We've got to be more resilient," he said. "Manufacturing has got to return to Australia. This has to be a wake up call for all Australians.

"Australia's got to get smarter, make ourselves more resilient, make sure we can sustain ourselves and lessen our reliance on China and other countries."

According to Mr Collingburn, manufacturers moving operations offshore was having a detrimental impact on skills shortages in Australia.

Construction of a marine vessel nears completion at Yamba Welding & Engineering.
Construction of a marine vessel nears completion at Yamba Welding & Engineering. YWE

He i determined to continue to employ apprentices to ensure skills and expertise in his industry are passed on to the next generation.

"Pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, we're a pretty smart country but a lot of our stuff goes overseas," he said.

"I picked up a box of matches made in Sweden the other day. We used to have a thriving match industry in Grafton, but because it was an extra two or three cents a box they bought them from overseas. That's ridiculous. These are things we should be making in Australia.

"We as citizens of Australia, to make ourselves more self-sufficient, have got to be prepared to pay a little bit more to keep Australians in jobs, instead of buying cheap goods from other countries."

Mr Collingburn said YWE and other companies that were "readying for the recovery" will lead the recovery.

"We're looking to the future. The world will go on, and although it might be a little bit changed, there is light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

"We're all going to come out of this, Australia in particular. In my opinion we've got good leadership and financial institutions, and are a small enough country to control our own destiny.

"We're a lucky country, let's be a little bit smarter, and let's work together."