A
regrettable feature of last week’s federal budget is the lack of anything about
the looming talent
shortage
in Australia. In
a speech of more
than 4000 words, the Treasurer managed to avoid any use of the words “education” or
“skills”.

My
field is retail. It is the largest
employment sector in Australia,
with just under 15% of the workforce. Retail is not too badly hit yet
(except for some specialist areas such
as merchandise planning where we are already bringing offshore
candidates) but the day is not far
away. However some industries,
including economic powerhouses such as construction and automotive, are already
struggling to find adequate quantity and quality of tradespeople.

It is imperative that we do something about this. One of the
consequences of the deregulation of trading hours has been the
casualisation of the retail workforce, particularly at the entry level.
This seems to have resulted in a reduction in the number of new
entrants to retail trainee management programs. The number of hours
during which the increasingly casual and part time retail juniors are
exposed to coaching, mentoring and development is small and shrinking.

Last
year the Australian Centre for Retail Studies released the first part of their
excellent Shopfloor to Boardroom study.
It showed that students, including many who were studying retail
subjects, see retail as a part time job until a real one comes along.

In the ACRS study they quoted a retail Human Resources
Manager as saying: “In the ten years between 2010 and 2020 there are only
going to be something like 80,000 viable people entering our workforce and the
big retailers recruit over 50,000 a year. Well, after one year we’re dead, we
have nothing left for the next nine years. We really need to start working now
to make retail a long-term choice for our current staff and for anyone else that
we’re going to be bringing in … Because we don’t want to be stuck with no
one.”

Couple this with the need for retail to become more skilled, more scientific
and less seat-of-the-pants and we have a looming problem. People
are getting harder to find; and if you want a good one…

Governments
and industry have a dual role in promoting and developing retail skill
levels. I think governments see retail
as non-productive; just the last part of the supply line. Mining and manufacturing are far more
sexy. They would do well to remember
that absolutely nothing happens unless someone sells something
to a retail consumer.

But
every cloud has a cliched lining. The
bright side is that for my company, Orex,
our skill in finding strong candidates, particularly people who aren’t really
looking for a job, will be in demand.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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