Not enough being done to fill skilled workers shortage

Speech to Parliament

May 10

“Australia’s economy is in transition, the fourth such significant economic refocusing since we became a nation. We started as an agricultural economy and became a manufacturing based economy and then a service based economy.

We are now in the process of tying our immediate financial future to the mining industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my home state of Western Australia, where the iron ore and gas industries lead the nation in activity and, given the level of reserves, also in future potential.

Of course, we are not the only state riding on the haul pack. The coal reserves in the eastern states, especially Queensland and New South Wales, mean that the mining sector is important to all of us. No mainland state would be where they are without it.

The mining industry, however, faces major challenges in attracting the necessary trained workforce—and this is not just occurring in the mining sector. Given the employment demands of the mining industry, trying to find skilled transport machinery operators, agricultural workers and even semiskilled workers is a nightmare across rural and regional Western Australia.

I am sure other states find their farmers as well as their transport and machinery businesses in a similar position.

There is no doubt that Australia faces a desperate shortage of skilled labour, but the government dithers with its inadequate training platform, and industries are being hamstrung.

This is having a major impact on productivity. This government is fiddling while our businesses are burning, particularly those in the south-west of WA. Those businesses are continually losing their heavy-duty machinery operators, their heavy-vehicle drivers, to the north-west.

This is placing extraordinary pressure on a range of businesses in the south-west. The Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is on record as saying that our state will need an additional 488,500 workers over the next decade and, of these, only 69,000 are in mining.

The construction industry is expected to need an additional 130,000 skilled tradespeople. With a current workforce of 1.27 million workers, the expected demand of nearly half a million skilled workers represents an increase of 38 per cent. An increase of the workforce of this size would require a total population increase of around 75 per cent.

As attractive as Western Australia is in which to live and work, a near doubling of the population over a decade is not realistic.

The infrastructure requirement alone staggers the imagination. Even the chamber of commerce reasonably estimated an expected shortfall of 210,000 workers. Given this, it must be obvious to even the most naive observer that skilled migration is an essential component of our economic future.

But it is only by managing an efficient and effective skilled migration program that our economic potential will be unlocked.

I cannot understand why the government is making such a mess of it. Skilled workers are needed now, particularly in my south-west.

The government’s token increase in the budget of 5,000 workers across the entire nation ignores WA’s needs.

They are not needed just up north in WA. The South West, as I said, is a major industrial and mining economy with a $12 billion GDP. It is a major training centre that produces skilled staff, many of whom are immediately attracted to the northern mining sector.

While no-one would seek to deny these people the financial opportunities available to them in the north, this leaves a major skills shortage in the South West and industry there is frustrated on a daily basis at losing those vital skills.

As a practical example, heavy machinery operators and heavy vehicle drivers are not on the government’s skilled occupation list, but they are in desperate shortage across the state and particularly in my part of the South West.

They need to be highly skilled and fully trained in many areas, including safety.

If you are a heavy machinery operator or a driver, you cannot just get into a $250,000 vehicle with tonnage upwards of 42 tonne and do the job you are expected to do. They are skilled and they need to be highly skilled and fully trained in many areas.

Businesses in the South West continue to bleed their apprentices and their workers.

There is an urgent need for change to the skilled occupation list to assist businesses not only in the mining industry but also in the transport industry and the contracting industries so that they can access the staff they need to be able to do the work that we have.

The South West has a lot more to offer this economy and we need infrastructure to go with it, but we certainly need the workers and the skilled and trained people to be able to keep driving the economy to contribute to the Australian economy.

This government needs to get its foot off the hose and start supporting the new drivers of the Australian economy.