6 August 2022

It’s very apt that one of the first announcements of the new Albanese Government was that it would hold a National Jobs and Skills Summit at Parliament House in Canberra from 1-2 September. 

The summit will bring together representatives from business, other employers, unions and governments to address the workforce shortage crisis that has emerged in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also inform a subsequent Employment White Paper to help shape the future of Australia’s labour market.

Here in the Illawarra, the workforce shortage crisis is arguably as challenging as it is anywhere and is hurting local businesses of every shape and size. 

This is reflected in our record high local job vacancies, over 3,000 at last count and more than double what it was two years ago, according to the National Skills Commission. This corresponds with record low unemployment rates (2.3 per cent) and numbers of people (3,800) in June 2022. In June 2020 we had 13,300 unemployed people (ABS).

To ensure our perspective is heard at the highest levels, our local parliamentarians, Stephen Jones and Alison Byrnes, will host a local jobs forum prior to the national event. Business Illawarra is looking forward to representing the experiences of local businesses there, and just as importantly, coming forward with realistic, achievable solutions.

So, what are the solutions to the wicked problem of, put simply, not enough workers to service a growing economy?

Our 2022 skills survey confirmed that worker shortages are the biggest challenge facing businesses right now, which in turn means that this is the greatest obstacle to Australia’s economic recovery and future prospects. 

A record high 93 per cent of businesses are experiencing a skills shortage, far higher than in 2021 (73 per cent) 2019 (55 per cent) and 2017 (59 per cent). Less than 1 per cent reported that the staff shortages were having no effect on the business and every industry is being almost equally affected. 

It is worth remembering that these businesses provide 90 per cent of local jobs, are the largest contributors to economic growth and provide the critical services we all rely on.

The roles in highest demand locally are general clerical, general salespeople, nurses, aged and disability carers and miscellaneous labourers.

Supported by this data and other feedback direct from the business community, Business Illawarra is advocating for two broad solutions that are achievable, direct and will deliver more workers into the areas of our economy most in need. 

One is to streamline the skills pipeline for ‘homegrown’ workers, and the other is to grow our total workforce through migration.

Governments and businesses across Australia are making welcome investments in skilling - and re-skilling - local people to fill key roles in the areas mentioned. In short, this requires a strong stream of jobseekers being referred into training programs that, once completed, can fill key workforce gaps locally according to employer need.

An example getting runs on the board locally is our own Illawarra Youth Employment Strategy (YES), funded by the NSW Government and delivered by Business Illawarra. YES trains young people up before placing them with local employers. Apprenticeships, traineeships, and university to work programs are also important elements of the skills ecosystem.

However, referrals into these programs are only as strong as the pool of available workers, which is to say: not strong at all. And this is not helped by the recent temporary suspension of Mutual Obligation, which followed ongoing disruption throughout the two years caused by COVID.

In addition, we need to think globally to address worker shortages. The following three immigration solutions would make a very real and very fast difference without hindering the growth of our home-grown pipeline.

First, we need to reward those international workers on temporary visas that are due to expire in the next 12 months with a further automatic two-year extension that is rolled over and requires no application or fee to ease administration delays.

Second, we need to motivate international students to return to our shores and those who are here to stay longer. The government should implement longer temporary graduate visas of four years and at the same time maintain the temporary relaxation of working hours for existing student visa holders while there remains a critical labour shortage. This is particularly relevant here the Illawarra in order to restore a higher number of overseas students attending the University of Wollongong.

Finally, we need to encourage skilled migrants back into Australia and support more employers to sponsor migrants by making the visa process easier, cheaper and faster. Clearing the backlog of visa applications is a good start, with easier pathways to permanent residency and citizenship a must. 

What better way to encourage someone to make a contribution here in Australia than by giving them a clear path to citizenship and establishing themselves in such a wonderful community like the Illawarra.