How employers can play a role in averting Australia’s skills shortage

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

The research is telling us that full-time jobs in Australia are harder to come by than ever before and youth unemployment is in double digits, yet we are facing a skills shortage. Jobs are going begging across technology, trade, and hospitality industries, to name just a few.  

In fact, I heard it said at a conference recently that the shortage of local workers in the hospitality industry is so great that if the government revoked 457 migration visas today, you wouldn’t be eating at a restaurant tonight. And that should be a big wake up call for Australia. While skilled migration programs can provide short-term relief for struggling industries, they are not a substitute for a strong domestic labour market.

Australia’s skills shortages will impact every single one of us – from escalating costs to the consumer to impeding economic growth, we will all feel its effects. In fact, skill shortages in the technology industry alone could see Australia miss out on economic benefits of $139 billion in the next two years.

Waiting for a government solution isn’t viable

I’ve talked before about the many reasons we are facing this crisis, but one of the key issues in my mind, is the inconsistent funding between university degrees and VET qualifications, which has been labelled by many experts as ‘unfair’.

While our governments certainly need to step up and resolve the myriad of funding issues plaguing our education sector, with responsibility spread across state and federal bodies this isn’t going to be a quick fix.

In my opinion, there is a fantastic opportunity for the VET providers and the private sector to come together and work toward a common goal. While the VET sector has had a long history of working closely with industry through work placements, there is now an opportunity to extend those relationships. Many VET providers are starting to work with employers to build stronger career pathways that attract and retain talent.

Mindsets need to change

In some industries there has long been a culture of employer-funded education, and this is something we need to grow across the spectrum. However, this is going to take a significant mindset shift by employers; VET qualifications have been government funded for so long that, for some, ‘free’ training has become an expectation.

Smart organisations recognise that ‘what goes around comes around’ and see the opportunity that lies within the challenge. It’s no secret that providing career pathways and training opportunities are a key part of any talent retention strategy – investing in people works. Many large businesses already do this, but small and medium businesses can realise the benefits too.

Employees who have the employer support for their education and training are usually more engaged and productive on a day-to-day basis and often stay for longer. A common objection that is raised, particularly by smaller businesses, is ‘I’ll pay to train/qualify them, and then they’ll leave.’ And this is another mindset that needs to change. The reality is, that whether you fund development or not, people can and do change jobs. By offering training incentives, businesses are not just strengthening their own position and outlook but building stronger industries and averting skill crises by attracting more workers to their industry. In the long term, this is a win for us all.

It goes beyond school leavers

One trend I’m seeing is that, even amongst those employers that do invest in VET, the tendency is to focus on the start of the career. School leavers and juniors are often given opportunities to train or qualify through certificate I and II and apprenticeship programs.

This tends to taper off as the employee’s career progresses, and employer-funded enrolments for Certificate IV and above is much lower. In my opinion, this is a missed opportunity. Continuing to develop employees, particularly as they make the transition from frontline to management positions is key to retaining top performers.

Investing in reskilling and upskilling employees is also going to be key as the full impact of automation is realised in the coming years. Organisations who plan for this now are putting themselves on the front foot as we navigate a period of unprecedented change in our workforce.

The time is now

In the current climate, with skill shortages in many industries reaching dire levels, and yet conversely, high youth unemployment, there is a clear opportunity here for forward-thinking employers to engage and attract new talent.

While government reforms will have a significant role to play, employers can take action now and see both short and long-term gains. It will take a macro outlook but investing in people today has the potential to grow individual businesses, fuel strong competitive industries, and have a positive impact on the economy.