During the early months of COVID in 2020, incoming chair of Illawarra Innovative Industry Network (i3Net) David Bridge thought that the impact on the Illawarra's industry could be similar to the effects of the global financial crisis in 2008.
The GFC had a visceral impact on the Illawarra, with BlueScope closing its No 6 blast furnace and laying off 1000 staff. If a similar shock occurred in 2020, it could mean the end for manufacturing in the Illawarra.
Thankfully, such an outcome did not occur, and as new chair of i3Net, Mr Bridge says that there has never been a better time for industry in the Illawarra.
"What's happened since the GFC has forced industry to say, how are we going to survive?"
For many businesses, this has meant diversification, and with the current crop of projects coming to Port Kembla and the Illawarra, not only in the steelworks but across energy, infrastructure and mining, this work is bearing fruit.
Behind this pivot from businesses has been the work of former chair Emilio Salucci. Helming i3Net since 2013, Mr Salucci oversaw the growth of the organisation as it expanded to encompass a much broader section of industry.
As businesses in the Illawarra began to pick up the pieces after the GFC, many did not have the time and funds to pursue business development opportunities. Mr Salucci's focus for i3Net was then to bring opportunities to the industrial businesses in the Illawarra.
In one example, Mr Salucci's employer Ventia - then known as Broadspectrum - was contracted to fabricate piping for offshore gas wells in Queensland. Unable to complete the order solely in house, the opportunity was brought to i3Net members to ensure that Illawarra businesses played a role in that contract.
"It wasn't what we can get out of i3Net, but what we can give i3Net," he said.
Mr Bridge said that in taking over as Chair, he hoped to continue to provide similar opportunities for businesses in the Illawarra.
While the Port Kembla steelworks will remain at the heart of industry in the Illawarra, there are also new opportunities on the horizon for businesses in the Illawarra that were not previously available.
The major one is defence. Currently, the Australian government is going through the largest defence acquisition cycle in living memory.
Although shifts in programs such as changing from the French-led Attack-class submarine program to the AUKUS nuclear submarine pact have led to uncertainty for local manufacturers, the sheer volume of work in the defence sector means there are opportunities for local businesses, said Mr Bridge.
"Defence is really an untapped opportunity for the Illawarra because there is a tremendous amount of money to be spent with new equipment, systems, plant, resourcing and I think the Illawarra has got a significant contribution to make," he said.
"I think that if there's one additional industry sector that is a real opportunity for Illawarra business, that's in defence."
While that might sound exciting, there is a long way to go for businesses hoping for a slice of the defence budget pie, with additional security measures required of contractors, including subcontractors, that work in defence.
"It's a red tape nightmare and to get appropriately cleared it's very intrusive into your personal life and people need to understand to work in that sector," said Bridge.
Outside of defence, what is energising industry in the Illawarra is the promise of turning Port Kembla into a hydrogen hub. BlueScope and Shell have committed to working together to produce hydrogen in Port Kembla, as has Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest as part of a new power station in the industrial precinct.
Mr Bridge and CEO of i3Net Bianca Perry see the organisation as being the glue that holds together these large organisations pursuing the fuels and technologies of the future with the welders, fabricators and innovators who have been working in the Illawarra for generations.
"It's the conversations and the networking that happens around the table that is the real magic of i3Net," said Ms Perry.
Achieving this vision will take more than the titans of industry sitting around a conference table, however. The industrial sector across Australia is grappling with an ageing demographic and a younger generation is needed to carry these projects and others to fruition.
Working with training providers including the University of Wollongong, TAFE and employers with existing cadets and apprenticeship programs, i3Net is involved in the skills conversation, yet having inspiring projects such as offshore wind turbines cannot be undervalued, said Mr Bridge.
"Some of the announcements over the last 12 months, I'm sure that's going to inspire the next generation."
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