Preserving Australia?s skills base for the future

As the nation braces for a federal election in July, an issue that I’d like to see canvassed in the forthcoming campaign is the future of Australian employment. I fear it will be a footnote.

Last month, steel producer Arrium called in administrators, potentially endangering 7000 jobs. This followed the downsizing of jobs at Queensland Nickel. Coupled with the imminent departure of the car manufacturing industry from next year, and the end of the mining boom, and given that in general, businesses will shed jobs as new technologies make operations more economical and efficient, the question that’s gone begging is: “Where will all the jobs come from?”

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report – Back to Work Australia – recently analysed the impact of downsizing on Australian workers (2.3 per cent of the workforce annually). It reported that while most found full-time employment quickly, 30 per cent were unemployed after 12 months and older workers and casual workers suffered, in terms of job quality, longevity and reduced salaries. The OECD also found wanting Australia’s approach to assisting retrenched workers seeking re-employment – favouring only workers affected by mass closures.

Australia has for at least 10 years experienced a skilled labour shortage. Indeed, employers complain they cannot find “good” people to fill vacancies. While changes were made to the training regime to make skills more portable, enabling men and women to work across the quarrying, mining, engineering and infrastructure sectors, it seems the private sector has not tapped into that mobility – at a time when Australia could improve its maligned infrastructure by utilising the skills coming out of the mining boom.

Instead, we get vague talk from our politicians about “innovation”, and “opportunities” afforded from Australia’s recent free trade agreements and more investment into northern Australia. The problem is timid private and public sectors seem risk-averse to making long-term investments and reforms.

IQA general manager Paul Sutton writes a thought-provoking piece on the IQA’s Smart Quarrying program this month. He argues future employees will need to “excel at creative problem-solving, open-mindedness, self-awareness and different ways of thinking” and transfer that “conceptual thinking” to their organisations to meet the challenges of the new era.

Everyone should be embracing “lifelong learning” to consistently upskill themselves. A qualification – a diploma, an advanced diploma or a higher education degree – will assist workers to be more mobile, flexible and multi-talented if Australia is to make the transition from the mining boom to the so-called “new economy”.

Smart Quarrying is an inventive, ambitious program – one that could well assist workers with highly specialised skill sets from the mining sphere whose careers have been curtailed. At a time when Australia needs an “infrastructure boom” to restore economic confidence and address its skilled labour shortage, it’s ludicrous to ignore the value of such workers.

If the availability of skilled roles for skilled professionals continues to diminish, then (regardless of the quality of training) it stands to reason that it will impact on governments’ ability to deliver infrastructure for communities and on private companies to deploy resources to build infrastructure. Down the supply chain this will surely hurt quarries. A streamlined, smoothly run quarry operation is excellent – but there still has to be the demand for construction materials, underpinned by a vibrant, prosperous economy.

This is an issue that politicians should not ignore. Whichever side of politics prevails later this year, they must review their approach to preserving the skills bases of the workers affected by recent and impending closures and divert them to where they can do the most good in the economy. For the workers coming out of mining, that means getting our infrastructure priorities in order.

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