04/03/2010 - 00:00

Workforce plans take slow road

04/03/2010 - 00:00


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State and federal governments are formulating plans to deal with looming labour shortages, but progress is slow.

Workforce plans take slow road

IN August last year, the state government announced it was splitting the old education and training department and establishing a new agency titled ‘training and workforce development’.

Premier Colin Barnett and Training Minister Peter Collier hailed the change as evidence of their focus on one of the state’s major challenges – dealing with the prospect of skilled labour shortages as the economy recovers from the global financial crisis.

The very next day, following the formal go-ahead for the giant Gorgon gas project, the federal government had its turn.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the establishment of a national resources sector employment taskforce.

WA Business News said at the time that both announcements signalled good intent. They showed that the state and federal governments were aware of a looming issue, and planned to do something about it.

We also said at the time that the real test would be the substantive policy action that followed.

Six months on, where have we got to?

Well, the Canberra taskforce has just released a discussion paper to “inform a national discussion” about the labour and skills requirements of the resources sector”, to “elicit views on issues that may need to be addressed”, and “identify possible solutions and examples of good practice”.

In light of the undue haste shown by Canberra when implementing its botched housing insulation subsidy scheme, it is tempting to say ‘hasten slowly’ when developing new policies.

It’s also tempting to ask: if Canberra can’t properly administer a housing insulation subsidy scheme, how can it formulate a workforce planning strategy?

The federal taskforce has taken six months to prepare its discussion paper and has now given business and other groups just five weeks to put in their submissions, ahead of another report in mid 2010.

One consolation for groups keen to make a submission is that the state government is running a very similar process.

Mr Collier released an issues paper in November, titled: ‘WA’s workforce development plan: a skilled workforce for the future’. His plan is to have a final report by November this year.

The issues paper came six months after the State Training Board released a strategy paper, titled ‘Training WA: planning for the future 2009-2018’.

So, it’s clear there is plenty of planning and strategising under way.

There has also been some tangible policy reform.

At a federal level, the skilled migration system has been reformed so that it delivers the type of workers that employers need.

At a state level, there has been a range of new incentives designed to make apprenticeships and traineeships more attractive.

The need is acute. Last year there was a 40 per cent reduction in commencements of construction industry apprenticeships.

There has also been a set of changes that, at first glance, appear purely symbolic.

Readers who don’t follow training industry news might not realise that Swan Tafe – the biggest publicly funded training provider in WA – is now Polytechnic West.

Similarly, Central West Tafe, which started life as Geraldton Technical Education Centre in 1958, is now the Durack Institute of Technology.

And West Coast Tafe is known these days as West Coast Institute of Training,

Mr Collier insists these are more than just name changes.

He is changing governance arrangements for publicly funded training providers so they have more flexibility and freedom to pursue market opportunities.

The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association put some perspective on the whole issue of workforce planning this week.

As the peak body representing Australia’s oil and gas industry, its members are at the pointy end of skilled labour shortages.

APPEA chief executive Belinda Robinson said the shortage of skilled labour was regularly identified as a key impediment to resources sector growth, but to what extent and what actions are required is much less certain.

Ms Robinson welcomed the federal review, but cautioned that: “it is impossible to forecast the industry’s skill and labour needs into the future with a high degree of accuracy”.

She concluded that: “planning for uncertainty must be a key plank of the strategy”.


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