Sharon Robertson, CEO of the IBSA Group, shared her thoughts with Manufacturers’ Monthly about the renewed focus on manufacturing in Australia since the COVID-19 pandemic and how skills will be playing a critical role in moving the economy forward within the sector.
MM: Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19 has been hinted by PM Morrison to be a resources-led one but perhaps there can be more on it being a manufacturing-led Australian economic recovery and where upskilling in the sector can make sure it is a priority?
SR: Our recent discussions with over 450 manufacturing industry participants, as part of IBSA’s Developing Modern Manufacturing through a Skilled Workforce report, revealed a lot of confidence that manufacturing will play a considerable role in Australia’s economic recovery and adapt to the changing domestic and international environment
This confidence and adaptability were evidenced in the early days of the pandemic when there was significant disruption to supply chains. We were given examples of cases where firms had pivoted production to address the immediate needs that existed, such as the production of PPE and components for ventilators.
This goes to the core issue of ensuring that we retain our sovereign capability and, with that, comes the need to ensure we are very competitive and efficient. Skills development is critical to achieving this. There are various State and Federal initiatives supporting modern manufacturing and these provide additional opportunities to ensure manufacturing plays its role in economic recovery.
The IBSA discussions began with Senator Michaelia Cash, the former Skills Minister, talking about a ‘skills-led recovery’ and continuing throughout the extensive consultations there was overwhelming optimism for the manufacturing sector.
MM: How does IBSA works together with IRCs for standards setting for skills training in the manufacturing sector?
SR: IBSA supports six Industry Reference Committees (IRCs) These committees’ cover: manufacturing engineering; aerospace engineering; textiles; furnishing; sustainability and process manufacturing, recreational vehicles and laboratory operations. The members of the IRCs come from a range of industry backgrounds. The committees, supported by IBSA, are responsible for ensuring that the qualifications related to their sector are up–to–date and relevant with respect to the alignment of the skills and knowledge required to achieve qualifications and contemporary jobs roles.
MM: Could you give a clearer understanding on how IBSA supports the nine training packages.
SR: In addition to providing a secretariat service to the six IRCs, IBSA has a research and analysis team which looks at the labour market, and industry trends more broadly, to inform decision making regarding qualifications.
As an illustration, the Australian Government’s ban of the export of waste, has had an impact on production processes and the way work is undertaken. As a result, IBSA has developed changes for consideration by the IRCs, that will flow into amended or new units of competency and qualifications being developed.
Another example is the comprehensive review of all qualifications in the Manufacturing and Engineering (MEM) Training Package from Certificate I to Advanced Diploma. IBSA has worked with the MEM IRC and now most of the trade qualifications have been updated and endorsed by Skills Ministers. The focus is now moving to advanced welding units and technician qualifications.
MM: Could you give a more in-depth dive into the key findings and recommendations of the report, the overview of priorities and a couple of findings – like the need for manufacturing to be seen as the good career that it is?
SR: As described earlier, the consultation series as part of the Developing Modern Manufacturing through a Skilled Workforce revealed a strong positive attitude towards the opportunities that existed for manufacturers in Australia. Maximising those benefits will require initiatives that will ensure there is a workforce able to support those opportunities. First and foremost, there is a need for a multifaceted workforce strategy.
Specific recommendations seen as priorities include:
- a need to upskill and reskill the existing workforce to ensure that the benefits from new technologies that support the production processes can be maximised. This will need a mix of public and private investment in existing worker skill development
- apprenticeships being crucial to ensuring ongoing skilled labour supply and the decline in apprentices commencing and in training is a matter of major concern. Some of the solution rests with a new approach to careers education that promotes manufacturing opportunities. There was a widespread call for apprenticeships to be established in new areas and for Diploma level qualifications.
- a system of micro credentials that allow for effective recognition of all relevant skills and knowledge held by workers, needs to be developed as a priority.
This need to enhance the capability of the workforce must be complemented by greater collaboration between all parties. In particular, the creation of greater synergies between VET and higher education was seen by many participants as critical to improving the performance of manufacturers.
MM: To react positively to crisis situations and opportunities, manufacturers need to be convinced that they are “enabled” in terms of resources and skills. What are your thoughts about the idea of having a sovereign capability – while the facts are clear why we should onshore manufacturing, besides encouraging with grants and training packages, what can we do to deter manufacturing from offshoring?
Participants in the series supported the need, and ability, to increase sovereign capability to ensure that Australia is not exposed to external shocks like those experienced in early 2020. Obviously, workforce development is central to achieving this, but it also essential that firms are extremely efficient and minimise waste. There was strong support for building sustainable work practices to ensure that critical production remains in Australia, because it is efficient to do so.
The textile industry is a good example of this. Having borne the brunt of offshoring, many of the leading players are now realising the economic benefits that improved sustainability practices bring, rather than just the environmental ones.