By Ron Maxwell - CEO
According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian 'jobs boom' is in full swing, with the number of new jobs created increasing month on month, and unemployment at an all-time low.
How this impacts individuals and communities depends on a number of factors. Location plays a big part; it’s no surprise that job growth is concentrated in our metropolitan areas, but there are opportunities for regional Australia too.
New jobs for regional Australia
The Regional Australia Institute is predicting 243,865 new jobs over the next three years in regional Australia, with the NSW regions of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, Illawarra, and the Mid North Coast amongst those who will benefit the most.
Healthcare and social assistance is tipped to be the biggest employer, followed by education and training. With a number of big infrastructure projects in progress, from the Parkes Freight Terminal to the Dubbo Hospital, regional Australia also has many job opportunities for those in the construction industry.
For these communities, the jobs boom will make it easier to find ongoing employment and potentially reverse population decline in some areas, however, to realise the full benefits, I believe two things must occur.
Wages need to grow in line with household expenses
For the jobs boom to have the best outcome for regional communities, wages must rise in line with the cost of living. Wage growth in Australia has been stagnant for some time, and a buoyant job market won't necessarily help this. If we don’t see an equilibrium between cost of living and wages, people often stop spending on all but the necessities.
This tightening of the belt is felt by communities of all sizes, but it can be particularly damaging for rural and regional economies. Drive down any main street in regional Australia and it quickly becomes apparent that a large percentage of the businesses are small businesses owned by locals, employing locals.
What also becomes apparent, is the number of For Lease signs in shop windows. The number of commercial vacancies is often a good indicator of the health of the local economy. When household spending is restricted, local businesses feel the loss keenly and often very personally – income from small business pays rent or mortgages and puts food on the table for many regional families.
We must build the skills to meet demand
If we are going to effectively support the growing demand for healthcare workers and keep jobs in regional Australia, we must provide the qualified workers. I've talked before about how access to education isn’t always equal for regional-based learners, and this will need to change if we, as a country, are to adequately meet the demand these jobs will create. In fact, the Regional Australia Institute says that "Meeting the job demand in regions with the suitable skilled workers will be fundamental to the ability of regions to take on these job growth opportunities."
Many of the jobs in the growth industries require vocational education and training (VET) qualifications, and with a VET sector review underway, it's the perfect time for our governments to look at a coordinated strategy to increase opportunities and access to education in rural and regional areas. While TAFE has a strong presence in our regional communities, TAFE can't possibly do everything required to meet the skills demand, there needs to be equal access to a range of quality VET providers.
And Regional Australia is crying out for opportunities to train young people and keep them in the community; you only have to look at how quickly the quota was filled for the government's Wage Subsidy for regional apprentices. In 11 days, 1630 subsidised apprenticeships were filled, demonstrating the strong demand for opportunities to build local skills. While it's been a great success, it’s clear there is a need for further opportunities and funding if we are going to equip regional workers with the skills to meet demand.
Career transitions will play a role
As some industries are predicted to experience growth, others, such as manufacturing, are set to decline further. Looking at the ways we can support Australians to transition to new industries and career paths will play a role in both reskilling these workers and meeting the skill demands of growth industries. With an ageing population, government-backed programs, such as Skills Checkpoint and Career Transitions Assistance, are a big part of the puzzle.
For many regions, job growth will be much slower, and we need to think about how to stimulate the labour market in these areas too. Career transition programs can help these communities too, putting a focus on skilling people in the areas of the greatest demand, making it easier for people to find employment and stay in their home towns.
Overall, Australia's jobs boom has much to offer regional economies. With a VET sector review currently underway, we have a unique opportunity to build the skills our regional areas need to flourish into the future – let's hope Australia can make the most of it.