Workforce planning will fall short if employers are not engaged in developing their own workforce.
THERE is no lack of viable workforce planning in Western Australia that provides industry and government with frameworks to manage skills and labour shortages.
The effectiveness of this planning activity is compromised, however, by the haphazard and short-term implementation horizon of strategies that fail to impact at a local business level.
At the height of the global financial crisis, the implementation of strategies to manage skills and labour shortages gave way to the media, industry and government’s embrace of Chicken Little’s warning of impending doom.
Staring down opposition, the South West Group and the Industry and Community Planning Division in the Department of Training and Workforce Development persisted with their workforce planning projects in two very different regions, the South West Metropolitan corridor of Perth and the Mid West Gascoyne.
The South West metropolitan corridor (extending from Fremantle to Rockingham) is a densely populated area with diverse industries producing a significant proportion of WA’s economic output. In contrast, the Mid West and Gascoyne regions are sparsely populated with relatively small and specialised economies.
Released in late 2009, the South West Corridor Workforce Development Plan reduced the complexity of workforce planning to a set of practical solutions for implementation at a local level. The message for government in this approach is clear – avoid the temptation to manage workforce development by allocating workforce challenges to a single government agency.
There is no single jurisdiction, agency, industry or community that can respond to the diversity of workforce challenges facing WA today.
While training is a critical aspect of workforce development, the Western Australian Department of Training and Workforce Development cannot also assume responsibility for schools, housing, transport, regional economic development or adjust migration inflows, all important components of workforce planning.
Moreover, even with a coordinated whole-of-government response, workforce planning will fall short if employers, at the local level, are not engaged in developing their own workforce.
An important role for the newly constituted Department of Training and Workforce Development is to improve the management of industry expectations that have been poorly controlled at both state and federal levels for several years.
Governments of both persuasions have created an expectation that skills and labour shortages can be solved through their astute manipulation of economic levers, budget allocations, industry taskforces, and minor adjustments to migration flows.
This creates false expectations that lead to the nonsensical proposition that the two thirds of employers in the South West Corridor, who have no workforce retention strategies, may hold the government responsible for their inability to secure and retain a skilled workforce.
The practical approach in the South West Corridor Workforce Development Plan is an attempt to guide employers and government through the implementation of strategies to manage local skills and labour shortages using an integrated project framework.
This framework connects the key components of workforce planning – training, infrastructure, industry and labour and relies on the active participation of employers at the local level.
The first element is building on a region’s strengths. This includes understanding a location’s competitive advantages and utilising existing education facilities, transport links, industry and skill specialisations to exploit these advantages. Put simply, it is unrealistic to expect that a hypothetical sardine factory operating in the Gibson Desert will not experience workforce attraction and retention issues.
The second element is the promotion of regional attributes through the development of marketing strategies to attract and retain a skilled local workforce.
This is particularly important in areas with high concentrations of heavy industry or remote locations. In the South West Corridor, this includes addressing the negative perceptions of suburbs in close proximity to the Kwinana industrial strip. The Kwinana Industries Council has demonstrated that the implementation of this element does not require federal or state government intervention.
Providing better opportunities for people to participate in the workforce is the third element. This includes expanding workforce participation rates through initiatives that emphasise employability skills and provide work experience opportunities to break down entry barriers to the workforce.
The introduction of workplace policies and practices that promote greater diversity in the workplace through the employment of students, indigenous workers, workers with disabilities, apprentices, or people nearing retirement is an immediate response open to employers.
The survey of employers in the South West Corridor revealed that 54 per cent do not employ people from this group. This is potentially a significant pool of untapped labour. Innovative strategies to activate this labour pool already exist and employers can link with local employment service providers, who can support and often subsidise an individual’s wages while they diversify their workforce.
The fourth element, and the most immediate for employers, is to proactively pursue strategies that prepare their workplaces for a future skill and labour shortage.
This includes strategies that improve workforce management and retention while enhancing the attractiveness of their workplace. In the South West Corridor, only one-third of businesses surveyed were taking steps to improve the quality of their workforce.
These strategies include undertaking a training needs analysis, identifying skill gaps and preparing a training plan. It also requires the allocation of a budget sufficient to meet future skill needs.
Employers that successfully maintain their workforce during periods of labour and skills shortages recognise that competing with the higher salaries in other industries, particular in the resource sector, is not a viable option.
Savvy employers reduce the impact of labour and skills demand on their workforce by improved retention strategies, reducing the need to source staff in a tight market. These strategies include more flexible workplace arrangements such as flexitime, increased leave entitlements and working from home options. These employers are also sensitive to the harmony of the workplace environment and use recruitment techniques that consider the behavioural attributes of potential staff and managers during the selection process.
Engaging stakeholders is the key overall element. This element ensures the workforce needs of major projects are included in workforce strategies that meet the needs of new and expanding industries.
The South West Corridor is home to several major projects, including the construction of the Fiona Stanley Hospital. On completion, this new health precinct will require more than 3,000 clinical and support staff. With many of the positions already listed on the Western Australian Occupations in Demand List, a coordinated strategy that includes representatives from industry, the health sector, training providers, local government and employment service providers is required for these staffing targets to be achieved and maintained.
While workforce planning is a complex subject, there are practical actions employers can take now to implement workforce-planning strategies in their workplace. The take-home message from the South West Corridor Workforce Development Plan is that employers, regardless of location, should not wait for a solution from government before taking action to prepare their business for skills and labour shortages.
n Jamie Robertson is a Director at 361 Degrees Stakeholder Management Services and coordinated the research and preparation of the South West Corridor and Mid West Gascoyne Workforce Development Plans.