22/02/2012 - 11:07

Is it time to import a willing workforce?

22/02/2012 - 11:07


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Australia must face up to the fact that we simply don’t have the skilled workers to build our future.

Australia must face up to the fact that we simply don’t have the skilled workers to build our future.

MY house has recently been renovated, the first time I’ve embarked on anything of such significance beyond having the kitchen remodelled a few years ago.

Not being much of a handyman, let alone a skilled tradesman, and having a perfectly reasonable job that occupies most of my waking hours and pays me a decent salary, the kitchen job and the major renovation just completed were outsourced to the experts.

It makes sense to do it that way, especially given I wanted the job done in a timely manner, costs to be kept to a contracted budget, and I had no intention of learning how to do such things for the future. 

Apart from the scary idea of ‘do-it-yourself’, the only real alternative – being an owner-builder – is just another form of outsourcing most of the expertise in packages rather than as a single job.

The DIY alternative ultimately involves stretching out the work involved because you need to fit the building in around existing employment and learn each skill required for even the most basic construction.

Even then, there’s no guarantee the finished product will be as good or even as cheap as what an expert could produce. And what if you have no intention of building another house? Those new skills are wasted.

A DIY effort potentially comes at the cost of your own earnings – due to tiredness, injury or simply lack of dedication. It might also be badly timed in terms of need; a growing family might require more bedrooms now, not 10 years hence.

So why is it when we build infrastructure at a state or national level we don’t think the same way?

It is clear from what is taking place right now that Australia doesn’t really have the capacity to build the things we need, let alone the things we want, in a timely fashion.

While the CFMEU might like the idea of lining up future projects in a perfect pipeline of work from here to eternity for its members and their descendants, the rest of the world is not prepared to wait.

They want our iron ore, coal and gas as soon as they can get it. The result is that we are getting a huge lump of work that requires special skills and many, many workers in the short term. We can’t deliver the workers required and, even if we miraculously conjured up skilled labourers in the 10s of thousands, their skills would be in oversupply within a few years when the construction phase of the boom ended.

If we had all the proposed projects up and running sooner we could capitalise on high commodity prices more quickly, which would pay off projects and make them more profitable. This is not just a benefit for the private sector; profitable companies pay more taxes and higher commodity prices equal greater royalties. 

This would mean plenty of work for Australians in operating, rather than building, skilled jobs that are long-term. As construction was under way, we’d have enough time to train the workers needed and they would be able to clearly see future job prospects.

The alternative is fewer jobs, less profit, less royalties and competition from alternative producers putting pressure on producers. 

There is a great likelihood that commodity prices will settle down before Australia’s production capacity has reached its potential. Instead of things being built here, they will be constructed in other places where resources are less developed or accessible, but where more is offered in terms of flexibility in the early stages of development.

Of course, all these words are just dancing around the subject. We need big amounts of overseas labour to get this job done, not just more cheaply but in time to reap the benefits.

This is what Gina Rinehart has been on about for ages. Because most of her critics have a go at her for her wealth (and her pearls), the views she has put forward have gained little traction.

Ironically, Mrs Rinehart’s recent highly criticised move to add a poetic touch to the debate has probably done the most to enunciate most clearly what she has long been stating in speeches and opinion pieces.

By savaging her skills at verse, her critics have publicised her views more widely than any stake in Fairfax would deliver.

Whether you care for the poetry or not, more people will have read and understood such lines as: “Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores, To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores” than would have been the case if she had spoken these thoughts from the back of a ute.

But it is not just Mrs Rinehart offering these views. There is a growing number of people voicing concerns that we must not let the second boom stall like the first one did.  

Last week I met with former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby, who has left the diplomatic service to, among other things, consult with communications firm Kreab Gavin Anderson.

Late last year, in a speech to a Committee for Economic Development of Australia audience he pointed out that Australia could have more than just resources projects up, creating jobs and making profits for the nation if we imported labour from places abundant with skills and people such as China.

We could, he suggests, have things beyond our reach today, such as the fast rail link the bureaucrats of the east so desire. Locally, the elusive idea of the Pilbara City, a major population centre in the north-west, would be far more achievable too.

“Australia can have first-class infrastructure, high-speed trains, new cities in the west, greatly expanded agricultural industries and large-scale steel mills adding value to our resources,” Mr Raby said in his speech.

“China’s market is set to grow ever bigger.

“We do, however, have to be open to Chinese capital and skilled labour.”

I know that this kind of sentiment instantly raises the hackles of those who oppose development because they don’t want it at all or because they want to profit from it exclusively for themselves by rationing the labour required.

They tend to shape the argument as being one about foreign owners using coolie labour – an odd mixture of xenophobia and human rights.

As Mr Raby, an economist by training, suggests, foreign labour need not be paid less or work in conditions below a standard that any reasonable Australian would demand. 

This way we could quickly develop the infrastructure required to develop both mineral and gas resources and also agriculture.

In some ways, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was the last time such a methodology was used here. 

Just as a reminder, The Snowy Mountains scheme consists of a staggering 16 major dams, seven power stations, a pumping station and 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts to create not just a major power resource but also a significant contribution to agriculture through irrigation.

“The system’s construction is seen by many as a defining point in Australia’s history, and an important symbol of Australia’s identity as an independent, multicultural and resourceful country,” the federal government’s own website devoted to the project says.

Foreign labour and skills were used to build that project. More than 100,000 people from over 30 countries came to the mountains to work on the scheme, 70 per cent of them migrated here for that project.

Of course, many of those people were economic refugees and migrants from the Europe devastated by WWII. They came to stay and work was the price they paid.

What is required today dwarfs that 25-year project, which started in 1949.

It is spread around the country, especially in the sparsely populated north where few Australians want to live under the prevailing conditions.

We ought to consider alternatives to the current model, which is likely to leave us short of the infrastructure we need when the boom slows down.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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