The Jobs and Skills Summit went ahead last week and one of the key topics of interest was ‘addressing the skills shortages and getting our skills mix right over the long term’.
It was certainly positive to see the discussion focus on the issue of Australia’s current skilled labour shortage for some time, but it was not surprising given just how critical the shortage has become.
One of the most prevalent threats to local manufacturers today is the supply of people with the skills and knowledge that we need to develop and progress as a business.
Whilst labour shortages have struck almost all sectors of the local economy, we are talking more specifically about a shortage of staff with the expertise or applied experience in particular trades, design, engineering or with modern technologies.
The drivers of the skilled labour shortage are not as recent as many may assume. The pandemic and resulting border closures have simply compounded an issue that has been developing over the longer term.
How can we fix the skills shortage?
When the usually steady supply of skilled workers ceased at the outset of the pandemic, it became abundantly clear that Australia did not internally possess the adequate number of technically proficient workers that the manufacturing, mining, construction and technology sectors demand.
These particular sectors had become particularly used to sourcing much of their talent from overseas. This was largely due to the fact that only a small percentage of our high-school and tertiary students were enrolling in fields relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Today, the number of school students studying STEM in Year 11 and 12 has flat-lined at around 10% or less. And since 2008, the number of tertiary students in engineering and related technologies studies has dipped from over 12% to around 8% today. That’s in stark contrast to the 22%+ that study in business management and commerce.
There are potentially a lot of reasons why young people are not gravitating towards STEM careers, but primarily it appears to be a perception that the career offerings in Australia around this field of study are not as rewarding or abundant as others. The reality is quite different – Australia’s many accomplished manufacturers, technology companies and mining corporations are in desperate need of staff with technical skills, engineering expertise, or a proficiency for problem solving.
In addition to the STEM fields of study in high school and beyond, vocational education is also extremely valuable for our workforce. Australia’s TAFE and VET system is central to developing the technical skills that many sectors require.
These pathways, however, have been plagued with their own problems for some time now. Low apprenticeship wages and funding cuts have caused a contraction in the number of courses being attended and a decline in the completion rate of apprenticeships.
So how were these shortcomings addressed during the recent Jobs Summit?
There was a clear and promising commitment to bettering the vocational training system. Prime Minister Albanese told assembled politicians, industrialists, union and community representatives that National Cabinet had reached an agreement between the Commonwealth and every State and Territory Government to create an additional 180,000 fee-free TAFE places, for 2023.
“This is a $1.1 billion package…we will continue to co-operate on the design of a long-term National Skills Agreement, and indeed we have agreed to the principles that will shape it.”Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
There was unfortunately little mention of strategies to boost our enrolments in STEM related high school and university studies, however. With plenty of discussion around making Australia a ‘smart country’, the onus still seems to be on migration for the necessary supply of engineers and technology experts that will be needed to establish the Government’s vision of an advanced manufacturing nation.
In announcing extended visas, relaxed work restrictions for international students and increasing permanent migration numbers, Albanese said “we need to be more attractive in the global labour market for the skills that we need.”
Whilst this is certainly required to respond to the issues in the short term, it doesn’t present much in the way of a long term solution to boosting our local capacity to generate talent.
How can industry players help fix the skills shortage?
Perhaps then, the task must fall on the shoulders of industry and our education systems to fix the skills shortage. Businesses can do a lot to encourage and grow the interest in career pathways that draw upon technical skills or STEM orientated expertise. Specifically, they can create close ties to the education systems that foster students’ interest in the fields where the skills shortages are being felt most.
Black Lab Design, for example, has this year become involved in a brilliant initiative that aims to ‘nurture the grassroots of innovation’ by connecting HSC design students with industry experts and businesses. The Uprising Young Designer initiative allows students to share their major design projects with representatives of the government, research bodies and industry to get advice, ideas and commendation. It has so-far proved rewarding for both students and members – going a long way to help the young designers understand the career opportunities that exist in local industry and display to businesses, like ours, that there is great promise for the next generation of leaders in engineering, design, technology and related fields.