By Anthony Albanese
Everywhere I travel, Australian business owners describe the same frustration. They can’t find enough workers to run their businesses.
Although Australia is reopening after the COVID lockdowns, worker shortages are holding back our recovery. It is a problem right across the economy, but is particularly serious in tourism and hospitality.
With holiday-makers about to hit the road for the summer break, hotel and restaurant owners can’t find enough staff to look after them. Many are unable to resume operation at full capacity.
Part of the problem is that the closure of international borders at the height of the pandemic stopped the flow of temporary skilled migrants and backpackers, who are so critical to the operation of these important industries.
These shortages will ease slightly as borders reopen. But migration should never be seen as the main solution to labour shortages.
With two million Australians unemployed or underemployed, we should be training up Australians to fill our skills gaps.
We can give hundreds of thousands of Australians the skills they need to find well-paid, secure work, at the same time as we ensure our businesses have access to the workforce they need to prosper.
That’s why a Labor government will provide free TAFE study for 465,000 Australians and create 20,000 extra university places in areas of skills shortage.
Our Made in Australia Skills Plan will train a new generation of mechanics, construction workers and engineers as well as workers needed in sectors like resources, digital and cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing.
We will also skill up nurses, aged carers, child carers and disability workers, areas traditionally dominated by female workers.
And critically, Labor will also target industries which, like tourism and hospitality, have been battered by the pandemic.
These sectors are on their knees and it will take deliberate government investment in training to get them back on their feet.
It is extraordinary that over the past decade, our Federal Government has cut funding to TAFE.
It has lost sight of its responsibility to invest in the skills of our nation’s greatest resource — our people.
There are 85,000 fewer Australians undertaking apprenticeships and traineeships today than on the day this current Government took office.
It is as though the Government sees migration as the only instrument available to address skills shortages, ignoring the value of training local workers, which not only empowers individuals, but also adds depth to the national skills base.
There will always be a place for skilled migration in a growing economy. But skills shortages were a problem in this nation long before the emergence of COVID.
The pandemic has simply shone a spotlight on Australia’s over-reliance on imported skills.
It has shown us that if, for any reason, the borders close, Australian businesses can be left high and dry. We must learn the lessons of the pandemic and, as we rebuild, address our weaknesses so we can build back stronger.
Labor sees a role for government in planning ahead with States, businesses and unions to ensure TAFE and universities are teaching the skills that the Australian economy needs and that will lead to fulfilling and well-paid jobs for this and future generations of Australians.
But just as importantly, we need to be able to look further ahead to anticipate the skills our nation will need down the track.
For example, we know there is huge potential for Australian industry to stake its claim as a global supplier of renewable energy technology and products.
We should be acting now to ensure we train Australians to work in these industries as they expand. Otherwise, the growth of the renewable energy sector will be held back by labour shortages just when it should be taking off as a source of export income.
To plan for future skills, a Labor government will create the independent Jobs and Skills Australia, which will work with employers, trainers and unions to deliver the skills we need today and plan for the skills we need tomorrow.
There is nothing revolutionary about this approach. It’s just common sense.
Labor’s plan for a better future for Australia is based on the simple proposition that governments have a role to plan ahead; to work with all sections of the community, embrace the reality of change and shape it in the national interest.
Australia is already a great nation. But we can make it even greater by working together and thinking ahead.
Anthony Albanese is the Leader of the Australian Labor Party.
This opinion piece was first published in the West Australian on Thursday, 16 December 2021.