Future skilling Australia’s workforce: challenges and opportunities

Mike Gallacher, CEO, Ports Australia (left); Dr Jens Goennemann, managing director, Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (centre); and Stephen Jones, executive director, safety, sustainability and environment, Sydney Metro (right) at an expert panel discussion.

The barriers and opportunities to develop and recruit skilled employees during the age of digital transformation were discussed at a recent forum in Sydney. Tara Hamid reports.


The event, the third in a series of eight Industry Skills Forums organised by the Australian Industry Standards (AIS), brought together the stakeholders from a diverse range of industries to discuss some of the barriers to recruiting skilled employees and explore emerging skill needs.

Hosted by prominent journalist and author Kerry O’Brien, the forums involve industry leaders in panel discussions as well as industry-specific break-out sessions to discuss and debate the challenges and possible solutions to skills shortages. AIS will use the information and insights from participants – estimated to be about 1,400 nationally – in its 2019 Skills Forecasts.

With the impact of automation, big data and new technologies being felt right across the workforce, all industries need to examine cross-sector barriers and opportunities.

“Advances in technology will deliver many benefits, but also can lead to skills shortages and impact business performance. Investment in rigorous and sustainable future-skilling by industry and educators can mitigate some of these challenges,” AIS CEO, Robert Adams, said.

For the manufacturing sector in Australia, digitalisation means new opportunities, according to Dr Jens Goennemann, managing director of Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre.

“With more than 47,000 manufacturing companies having one or more employees in Australia, the sector is very scattered. So, digitalisation is an opportunity because the lack of scale and the distance to global markets can be overcome by digitalisation,” he said.

He noted that while the high labour costs in Australia mean that production is not economical in many cases, digitalisation is helping create new business models and job opportunities, helping bring back jobs to Australia.

“One example is an injection moulding company. Previously the plastic components were manufactured in Chin. But now, the company has acquired robots that do the task economically. Therefore, the injection moulding is now carried out in Australia and exported from here. The jobs created are also higher-paying and more resilient,” he explained.

To prepare the workforce for these new jobs, he said the companies should themselves assume a leading role in teaching the required skills to the workforce, and then work with teaching institutions to prepare the training courses.

“The industries need to be in charge of their own fate. If the leading manufacturing sectors wait for the education systems to train people for them, it will be too late. They should train their own people and then share the experience with the the peak education bodies, not the other way round,” he said.

AIS chief operating officer, Paul Walsh, expressed hope that the insights from the forums will help shape policies at the state and federal level.

“Problems such as the changes in skills needs, the ageing workforce and the challenge of attracting young people to jobs that have traditionally not been attractive; these are problems shared by many industries now and they are not isolated to any one industry,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

The Skills Forecasts published by AIS since 2016 are key pieces of industry-centred advice for Government about the skills needs for each industry.

A major component of the Skills Forecasts is the identification of industry skills shortages. The drivers behind these shortages can vary across sectors, but there are common themes including: an ageing workforce; poor industry image; competition/poaching within and from other industries; low wages; and the cost/time to achieve the required qualification.

Industry Reference Committees (IRCs), supported by AIS, play a lead role in industry engagement on skills and workforce issues across a broad remit of sectors: aviation, transport and logistics, maritime, energy, water and utilities, public safety, police, fire, Defence and corrections. Collectively these IRCs cover more than 1.3 million workers or almost 10 per cent of the Australian workforce. More significantly, these workers add $174 billion to the Australian economy – or 11 per cent of GDP.

Need for job-specific training

While the universities offer in-depth education in various disciplines, most businesses these days are interested in job-specific training courses, according to a survey carried out by St.George Bank.

Earlier this year, the bank carried out a survey among its manufacturing and wholesale customers to find out the industry’s attitude to training. A key finding from the survey was that the majority of businesses want training tailored to their particular needs. Businesses also consider ideal training to be on-site and delivered by short, frequent modules.

“Digitisation and advances in technology are calling for different skill-sets and we need our tertiary institutions to look at the skill-sets that are required as result of these technologies. For example, the engineering courses are not necessarily designed for drone manufacturing. I’m aware of one drone company that’s talking to a university about changing their generic course to make it more specific to that technology,” Matthew Kelly, head of manufacturing and wholesale for St.George’s NSW division told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

To overcome the barriers to conducting more training, half of the participants in St.George’s survey believed the government should provide more funding to TAFE NSW for on-job, on-site training, while 20 per cent believed the skilled people are being deployed in the wrong areas and that more relevant training was required for individual businesses.

“The aim of the survey was to find out ways to better support our customers in training their staff. We are currently trying to work with TAFE around the results of our survey to find out what training programs can be put in place to benefit the industries,” Kelly explained.