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JobMaker needs to be SkillsMaker to recover from COVID-19

June 18, 2020

Currently, not a day goes by without a mainstream politician issuing a call on social media saying something like “let’s boost the Australian manufacturing industry” and “let’s only buy Australian made products”. This is fantastic, and well overdue, yet the question remains, if we have to import the talent to support this, are we really developing our own sovereign industry?

Let’s break it all down!

Over the last 2 days, the media has been abuzz with editorial about PM Scott Morrison’s JobMaker plans and how he is going to expedite $1.5B worth of infrastructure projects to boost our post COVID-19 recovery.

In an article published by Infrastructure Magazine, they report: “Mr Morrison announced the Federal Government would commit a further $1.5 billion to immediately commence work on priority projects identified by states and territories as part of new bilateral partnerships designed to expedite approvals. 

As part of this package, $1 billion will be allocated to priority projects which are shovel-ready, with $500 million reserved for road safety works targeting areas across the country, not only in rural and regional areas.

Investment will not only be directed to transport infrastructure, but also to water infrastructure to secure supply and underpin agricultural expansion; telecommunications services; the electrical infrastructure required to remove bottlenecks in Australia’s electricity grid; and advance manufacturing, especially in regional areas. 

Joint assessment teams will work on accelerating these projects, which are worth more than $72 billion in public and private investment and are expected to support over 66,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The Prime Minister’s priority list of fast-tracked projects includes:

  • Inland Rail from Melbourne to Brisbane
  • Marinus Link between Tasmania and Victoria
  • Olympic Dam extension in South Australia
  • Emergency town water projects in New South Wales
  • Road, rail and iron ore projects in Western Australia”

Prime Minister, Scott Morrison announcing $1.5 Billion in fast-tracked infrastructure spending.

This is great, a booming infrastructure construction industry will surely aid our economic recovery, right? But what if Australia doesn’t have the required talent on standby to support this boom, how will that affect our recovery?

On the same day as the above $1.5B infrastructure spend was announced, The Australian Financial Review ran an article titled “Australia lacks suitable engineers for future subs”. It details how Australia doesn’t have enough suitably qualified drafting engineers and that they need to be imported. “Foreign drafting engineers will need to be imported for Australia’s troubled future submarine program because there are none with sufficient technical knowledge working here.

Further, the article cites a report prepared by Naval Group for the Defence Department, titled Transfer of Technology: The Way Forward saying “Australian defence contractors are worried they are being locked out of work in favour of Naval Group’s existing French supply chain. With the government’s naval shipbuilding program to underpin 15,000 jobs requiring a massive training effort, the report sounds the alarm over skills shortages both in Adelaide and more broadly.

According to an analysis of Australia’s engineering workforce, there are zero Level E drafters in the country with the knowledge and experience to contribute to the submarine’s design. The report concluded that all Level E drafters would need to be provided by Naval Group in France.”

The article then goes on to discuss the Government’s plan to utilise foreign talent to pick up the shortage, “Another section of the report also suggests that the ability to use ‘French resources’ to work on and support the project in France and Australia takes priority over the use of Australians.

Opposition defence industry spokesman Matt Keogh said large defence projects should be used to develop Australian sovereign capability, but the report seemed to indicate a desire to use French skills. ‘The decisions highlight the government has failed to be clear with people about how much Australian industry capability and work is going to be available through these projects,’ he said. ‘If the necessary skills for defence industry are not being produced in Australia, that’s a failure of the government’s policy settings.’ 

Yes Matt, I agree! If the necessary skills that the defence industry requires, aren’t being produced in Australia, then it is a HUGE failing of Government policy. The issue is though, it’s not just localised to the defence industry, and herein lies the problem with the JobMaker plan. Just like the submarine program, we don’t have enough skilled people in Australia to adequately service a massive infrastructure spend without having to look offshore to overseas contractors and organisations.

Skills shortages have been the norm for many years.

It’s no secret that in Australia, there has been a decline in those seeking technical training and occupations. The New Daily reported in February 2020, that “between September 2013 and March 2019, the number of apprentices and trainees in Australia fell by more than 30 per cent, according to data from the Department for Education, Skills and Employment”.  

Unfortunately, the decline is not limited to just apprenticeships, but also those seeking University qualifications in Engineering. A recent report by Engineers Australia, notes that the outlook for domestic engineering course enrolment has been grim. “Commencements in entry-level courses are the largest group of courses and on average have accounted for 76.7 percent of domestic commencements in engineering. The share was slightly higher in 2017 at 78.5 percent,”

“Commencements in postgraduate courses have fallen faster than in entry-level courses, but only during the past three years when the decline averaged 5.9% per year. In 2017, commencements fell by 8.3 percent. On average, commencements in post-graduate courses accounted for 19.2 percent of domestic commencements in engineering. In 2017, this share was lower at 18.1 percent.”

Perhaps the PM’s JobMaker framework should incorporate a SkillsMaker plan!

Have we been caught with our pants down?

The fact is, if we don’t have the local talent available, and international borders remain closed for some time, then we won’t be able to get the crucial talent that we need for our recovery anyway. But let’s not forget, that on an international level, most countries looking to boost their economic recovery post COVID-19, are also looking to focus on building local manufacturing and fast tracking infrastructure projects, so therefore they are also going to be needing the same skills… there goes our Government’s recruitment strategy!

An opportunity to finally learn from our mistakes.

If Government is so keen to establish sovereign Australian industry, then we need to ensure that we have this backed up with a proper training regime that includes a focus on training Australians to be the technical tradespeople and the engineers of the future. It is time the Australian Government stops playing partisan politics and starts working with all sides of the debate to get serious and come up with a real-time strategy to increase the number of locally trained and educated engineers and technical tradies!

Perhaps part of the answer lies with our neighbours across the ditch. I was absolutely blown away when I read last week that New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, announced that the NZ Government has scrapped fees for all apprentices from July 1, in a bid to maintain trades training through the Covid-19 recession. It got me thinking, with apprentice wages being so low, this policy is a very big step in making apprenticeships more attractive.

The NZ herald reports “The $320 million programme aims to stave off a sharp drop in training that occurred after the global financial crisis, when trainees plunged from 133,000 to 83,000. It will be funded out of a four-year, $1.6 billion package announced in last month’s Budget, which also includes a further $412m employer apprenticeship subsidy which has yet to be detailed.”

How can anyone argue with any of that? But… where is Australia’s focus on technical education? We have a JobMaker plan, but if we don’t have the skills available, it’s not going to be as effective as it could be. Perhaps the PM’s JobMaker framework should incorporate a SkillsMaker plan! Either way, and what ever path the Government chooses, I don’t see how our Politicians can look the other way any further. We need to act now and come up with an effective national skills strategy that includes investment in marketing technical occupations to the next generation of workers, and a boost in funding to our technical education sectors.

About the Author:

James Walsh is the Owner and Director of Martin Walsh Group Pty Ltd, a Human Capital and Management Consulting firm that specialises in delivering recruitment solutions to the engineering and technical trades industries.

James has written many editorials and opinion pieces for various well known publications and has held regular columns in several publications where he writes about industry trends in staffing and recruitment.

Contact Details:
p: +61 (0)410 637 497
e: james@martinwalsh.com.au

TAGS Australian Engineers Employment James Walsh Technical Trades

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