In a rare show of unity, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson and Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney penned an op-ed in March on what they agree on: the need to upskill Australian workers. Anderson says the piece was rejected by The Australian and The Australian Financial Review because the media is only interested in controversy. In a speech that went unreported by Australian media last month to the International Labour and Employment Relations Association, he said:

“One would have thought that a joint collaboration between industrial protagonists on a workforce issue would be noteworthy, especially in an election year. However, despite our best efforts, the agreed opinion piece between the two national peaks has not been published. It simply does not contain enough controversy. It seems, common ground is not newsworthy, even on important economic and labour market matters.”

Crikey republishes it here …

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When powerful forces combine, out of the ordinary things happen. So it was with the meteorite explosion over the Russian Urals last month. The powerful combination of energy and heat created an awesome fireball that captured world attention.

So it can be if industry and unions combine with governments around the nation to create momentum for raising workforce skills. It is out of the ordinary for us, as union and business leaders, to jointly craft an opinion piece like this, especially since we often have different views on workplace matters. But developing our most valuable asset, our human capital, by raising workforce skills is not one of them. It’s a common goal of industry and unions, of capital and labour.

Thinking people will conclude it’s also a national goal. It deserves bipartisan political support. Re-energising education systems and workplaces with the capability to lift skills has economic and social dividends, in equal measure. For employers investing in jobs development, a skilled workforce can be a powerful force for productivity growth. For workers, it means wider career options, higher living standards and decent jobs. For the community, it means better value from its investment in education and innovation.

In March the government’s advisory body on labour market skills, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, presented new Skills Minister Chris Bowen with a report on where we are and where we need to go to meet this national goal. Together with colleagues experienced in the field, we are both members of that agency. Our strategy doesn’t advocate learning just for the sake of it. That’s a waste of money. It de-motivates job seekers if learning can’t be applied. It also frustrates industry, especially businesses experiencing skills shortages.

This strategy is not just about vocational skills, although these are a key component. It also looks at employment participation, management and leadership, literacy and numeracy, productivity, labour mobility, and the important role that higher education institutions such as our universities play. These critical components of workforce development are examined against projections on what skills and qualifications Australia will need so that we can identify the gaps, and recommend where effort is best directed.

It’s a strategy very much focussed on skills development that has direct and practical application to industry needs, and the secure jobs of today and tomorrow. It’s not easy to make projections about the future, but we know that some industries are in transition while others, like services, are growing in size and stature. A strong correlation between career development and workforce development is at the heart of the strategy.

“There are not only too many people unemployed, but an even greater number are not engaged in the workforce to their desired level.”

Businesses need certainty that their future growth will not be impeded by lack of skilled labour. They also need to utilise skills efficiently and effectively. This requires strong leadership and management skills. It’s also a strategy that grasps the concept of life-long support for training and career information that helps workers identify and take advantage of opportunities in industries that are strong, growing and sustainable.

Gone are the days when vocational education is just for the young with no need to re-skill or up-skill. Technology requires workplaces to change and new skills acquired inside occupations. Labour market mobility forces that reality on the many workers who now switch careers. And for workers made redundant because some traditional industries are in transition, new trade skills are a confronting thought but more appealing than a life on the dole.

This is particularly the case in a world where, thanks to the same processes of internationalisation and globalisation that have improved living standards over the past 30 years, old notions of a job for life have also gone by the wayside. We can’t turn back the clock, but an open economy in an internationally competitive environment like Australia’s will need to focus on innovation, improving the skills of our workforce, and improving productivity. If we get this right, we also help meet another national goal — increasing workforce participation.

There are not only too many people unemployed, but an even greater number are not engaged in the workforce to their desired level. We shouldn’t be a society where people drop out of productive work just because they have families, are getting older, have caring responsibilities or disabilities. Adapting skills to these needs requires thinking “outside the box”.

We’re not opinionated enough to think that today’s report has all the answers, or that the strategies will be universally accepted. Over the past 25 years, unions, governments and industry have overseen major changes with vocational education. Service industries that once only trained people on-the-job now have structured learning through apprenticeships and traineeships. At the higher end of the labour market, especially in professional services, Australians are working in Asia as engineers, architects, legal advisers and consultants.

Our innovation is an export. But countries in our region are not standing still. Industrialising nations of Asia are fast skilling their people. So must we. We must do it the smart way. Not just by pumping in more taxpayers money, but by getting better value for the extra money needed. It’s taken 12 months of hard work. The Workforce Development Strategy is worth the paper it’s written on. But it needs to take off, and with more than a bit of meteorite energy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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