ANTHONY ALBANESE: There’s a problem with Australia’s expanding transport networks – finding people with the right skills to make them work

Posted: 7th Feb

Workforce planning is critical for successful businesses.

Smart managers think ahead, anticipate future needs and act early on training and skills development to ensure their enterprise is well positioned to meet changing conditions.

While businesses can be very good at thinking ahead, governments often struggle to take a long-term view, allowing their attention to be diverted by short-term political challenges.

That seems to have been the trap that has captured the current Federal Government when it comes to serious skills shortages emerging in the Australian rail and aviation sectors.

We simply aren’t training enough workers to meet our transport needs.

When it comes to rail, the next few decades will see billions of dollars of new investment, including public transport projects in most capital cities, the Inland Rail freight project and, potentially, High Speed Rail down the east coast.

However, we lack sufficient train drivers, controllers, signalling engineers, maintenance workers, electrical technicians and tunnelling experts.

Industry body the Australasian Railways Association recently produced research conducted by BIS Oxford Economics indicating that by as early as 2023, the peak of the construction phase, we may have a workforce gap of up to 70,000 workers.

We must act.

Indeed, we should already be acting, given that states are already trying to poach each other’s workforces.

Left unaddressed, labour shortages increase costs for taxpayers and deprive families of the income they would receive from being in good jobs. They will also delay progress on the new railways, most of which are designed to tackle traffic congestion in our cities.

An additional challenge for rail will be procuring the thousands of new railway engines and carriages required for the new rail projects.

The bad option is to buy the rolling stock offshore.

It would be wiser to build the rolling stock in Australia, thereby turning a challenge into an opportunity and potentially breathing new life into Australian heavy manufacturing.

Once again though, none of that can happen unless Australian workers possess the requisite skills.

Skills development would be a key focus of a Federal Labor Government.

We would create a National Rail Industry Plan to harness the opportunities in manufacturing as well as a workforce development plan in consultation with industry, unions, states, training providers and other stakeholders.

None of this will be easy.

But we are determined to take a constructive approach in working with the private sector in the national interest.
We’ve already made clear we would significantly boost investment in education and training.

But for that spending to be effective, collaboration will be critical. We need to understand what skills are required and work hard to ensure they are being delivered as they are required.

The current Federal Government is taking a hands-off approach to skills development. It seems to work on the view that somehow “the market’’ will sort everything out.

But the market doesn’t plan ahead. Planning and intervention where necessary are the roles of government.

In aviation there is a glaring example of what can go wrong when governments take their eye off the ball on skills.

Australia’s aviation safety record is second to none.

But safety standards are under pressure because of a shortage of licensed aviation maintenance engineers, who service aircraft.

In recent decades, the globalisation of aviation has seen many airlines shift their maintenance facilities offshore to nations like The Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.

Thousands of Australian jobs have been lost, although, to its credit, Qantas retains its heavy maintenance facility in Brisbane, employing 600 people.

The problem is that because aircraft are being serviced offshore, there has been a reduction in opportunities to train safety engineers in this country.

The average age of existing workforce now exceeds 50 years.

This is not acceptable. Safety engineers are an indispensable part of aviation. They don’t just conduct scheduled servicing of aircraft; they are also the people called to make checks when, for example, the pilot of a packed aircraft awaiting take-off on a tarmac sees a warning light in the cockpit.

A Federal Labor Government would establish the Strategic Aviation Workforce Development Forum to work with stakeholders to find a way to maintain safety engineering training in this country.

Business operators know what is required when it comes to preparing for their future challenges.

But they can’t do it alone. Government leadership is required.

Labor stands ready to deliver.