Workers in demand as home building blooms

The government's HomeBuilder construction stimulus program is now expected to cost $2 billion.
The government's HomeBuilder construction stimulus program is now expected to cost $2 billion.

Construction workers are in hot demand as home building blooms, helped by low interest rates and government stimulus programs.

New figures show job advertising on the internet for labourers in December surged 6.3 per cent to be 55 per cent up on the year.

Overall, the National Skills Commission's report shows skilled vacancies rose 1.4 per cent in December, the eighth consecutive monthly increase since hitting a record low last April and during Australia's economic downturn.

They now stand 11.1 per cent higher than a year earlier.

Labour force figures for December are due on Thursday and are expected to show a further fall in the unemployment rate.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday the building of 26,726 private sector houses commenced in the September quarter, a four per cent jump on the previous three months.

Since then, building approvals have reached 21-year highs, while new home sales have soared as people rushed to secure $25,000 grants under the federal government's HomeBuilder program.

The program, which helps Australians either build a house or renovate an existing home, has received more than 30,000 applications above Treasury's original forecast.

"This program has been really effective," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"This has more than doubled our expectations for that program, it's set residential building up for the next two years."

More than 75,000 households have applied for the cash grants, with 80 per cent of applications seeking to construct a new dwelling.

The remaining 20 per cent of applications have been for major renovations.

Property Council chief executive Ken Morrison said in mid-2020 the construction sector was "staring down the barrel of a cliff".

"A drop-off in activity that would have been disastrous for jobs. This has switched that around," he told Sky News.

The grant program was originally due to expire at the end of December but was extended until March 31 at a reduced rate of $15,000.

Housing Minister Michael Sukkar expects the demand-driven scheme to support up to $18 billion worth of residential construction projects.

The stimulus was costed at $920 million, but could now have doubled to about $2 billion after a surge in applications in the final two months of last year.

"The final cost will be reconciled and accounted for in the budget but I think it is fair to say it will be higher than originally anticipated," Mr Sukkar told reporters in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute monthly consumer sentiment index for January fell 4.5 per cent, retreating from a decade high seen in December.

"Since the last survey ... we have seen domestic border closures, the emergence of COVID clusters in some states and the sharp upswing in COVID cases overseas, notably the US and the UK," Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said.

However at an index of 107 points and above 100, Mr Evans said optimists still clearly outnumber pessimists.

"It still points to healthy consumer sentiment," Mr Evans said.

Australian Associated Press