New opportunity to provide skills training - Public Service Association

New opportunity to provide skills training

There is something a little surreal about our working lives in the wake of the global pandemic. It seems strange that only three years after the world stopped and literally held its breath, when the economy as we know it went into a deep freeze taking lives, jobs and businesses with it, that we now have a world desperately short of skilled workers.

At the same time we have wages falling behind the cost of living and a worsening housing crisis that has left tens of thousands of Australians on the street.

It would be tempting to sheet home this cocktail of economic and social crises we now face on the effects of the global pandemic. That would be a mistake.

Whilst the pandemic has left its own deep and painful scars in the tragic loss of life and long-term effects on our health and those who care for us, the longer term economic impact is another story that has a longer history.

When it comes to the economy, the pandemic had the effect of ripping off a band-aid and exposing a gaping wound. What became evident, even to casual observers was that off-shoring, outsourcing, casualising, privatising, downsizing everything that we value and depend on as a community have all had severe consequences.

Even Morrison, the former prime minister and minister for everything had to admit that it was time to build our national “resilience”, after leaving the country exposed to critical shortages in everything from skilled workers and pharmaceuticals to toilet paper. Not a great look for an island continent. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, more thought and time was put into the marketing strategy than addressing the structural problems.

When you can’t train and recruit enough essential workers such as nurses, midwives and teachers to keep the lights on in your hospitals and schools, you have a problem. When you can’t keep the ones who are already trained and working in the system, you have a crisis.

Training them is one thing, keeping them is another. We have to understand that we are not talking about machinery or commodities that are bought and sold. We are talking about people who sell their labour to pay the bills that are increasing faster than their wages. At the moment we are failing on both counts.

So how do we do it? If it has been such a challenge to come up with hundreds of thousands of skilled and trained workers to do the essential work in education, health, housing, power and energy and social services, how do we address skill shortages in the rest of the economy?

First, we need to recognise that the current skills and training regime represents, arguably, the greatest failure in skills and training policy since the second world war and has resulted in the defunding and privatisation of TAFE services around the country.

It’s taken more than two decades of tireless campaigns from TAFE unions exposing the rorts and relentless attacks on this public institution to mobilise the community and politically charge this issue. We now have in place both at the state and federal level, Labor governments who have committed to the reform of skills and training systems.

What does this mean? For vocational education It means we can now start rebuilding TAFE which will require a huge increase in guaranteed funding levels and the recruitment of thousands of permanent TAFE teachers who were axed during the preceding decade.

It also means an end to students and taxpayers being treated as cash cows for private training providers, many of whom are large profit-driven corporations who regard their students as a market and treat them accordingly. This caused the mess we find ourselves in and must be the first thing to change if we have any hope of succeeding.

Next, we need to provide incentives to fill the gaps in our labour market, not charge students fees for the privilege. The federal government has offered 180,000 fee-free TAFE places and in NSW further places have been offered by the incoming Minns government.

Great start, but in the longer term we need to go much further. Unless we remove fees permanently from TAFE and for that matter university courses as well, we will always find ourselves behind the eight ball, reacting to crises in the labour market rather than preventing them and paying a premium in lost productivity and capacity constraints in our economy.

Finally, we must learn a big lesson from the pandemic. Temporary visa workers are not a long-term answer to skill shortages. We must resist the temptation to simply rob developing countries of their skilled workers rather than accepting our responsibilities to train and retain our own workers. If we don’t we may do little more than replace one band-aid with another.

  • Arthur Rorris is Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council

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