Solving the great workforce challenge

WA’s latest skills crunch is not a new problem and underscores the need for businesses to focus on workforce planning, says ASA Manager Lena Constantine. 

When Scott Morrison spoke at a Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA lunch in April, he was unequivocal about the greatest challenge facing the Australian economy. 

“Workforce, workforce, workforce, workforce,” the Prime Minister said. 

ASA Manager Lena Constantine.

“Training people with the right skills that you need in your businesses to be competitive.”

He’s right. There’s a very real and significant skills shortage affecting a host of industries in WA – from hospitality and health to manufacturing and construction. 

But the uncomfortable reality is this isn’t a new problem, with businesses again caught up in a commodities-driven, boom-bust labour cycle – this time amplified by the impacts of COVID-19. 

Matching up required skills with current and future staffing needs is proving the real challenge, and that comes down to something less cyclical and far more strategic: workforce planning. 

While commodity prices are unpredictable, businesses can implement a range of measures to future-proof their workforce needs. 

Developing a business strategy that factors in a review of past successes and failures, competitive position, stakeholder expectations and anticipated changes in the business environment is a first step. 

Scanning the overall labour environment is also critical if businesses want to understand the true nature of skills demand and supply and think more broadly than just their own industry in WA. 

For example, employers in the construction sector need to consider trends in the manufacturing sector as well as in mining and defence, including what projects are coming online, as many different industries compete for the same types of skills. 

Take one look at the current skills crunch for why this is so important. 

As a heavily resources-focused state, many businesses in WA are competing with mining companies that have the propensity to pay high wages. 

While a mining boom has myriad positives for employment and supply chains, the downside is that some industries then struggle to fill basic jobs to keep the doors open. 

Competing for skilled workers with golden handcuffs is counterproductive and unattainable for smaller companies. 

So how do businesses begin to fix this? 

They start by diversifying how they obtain skills, build skills and retain skills within their workforce. 

This is critical, so that when a major event such as a global pandemic turns off the tap on a major labour source – in WA’s case, workers from overseas or the Eastern States – it doesn’t bring entire industries to their knees. 

A diversified workforce strategy means a business still has local workers that they’re developing through partners like Apprenticeship Support Australia (ASA), and they’re investing in reskilling or upskilling existing staff. 

It also means looking at how they can skill local workers into the roles they need using apprenticeships, traineeships, internships and graduate programs.   

And then sticking to that long-term commitment so they continue to have a flow of developing, skilled workers. 

In addition, they then tie that to a succession plan so the expert knowledge in their ageing workforce is passed down to new workers. 

Waiting until there’s a dire need for skilled staff is too late because those workers will simply not be available. 

We have to seize on the recent mindset shift where more and more businesses view training as a strategic investment rather than a “nice to have”. 

Historically, training has often been cut in difficult times, in the future it will be a critical survival mechanism. As our economy shifts to higher value add activities, a pool of skilled workers will be of increasing importance. 

According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, by 2025 about 40 per cent of workers will require reskilling of up to six months, emphasising that training is no longer an option. 

It’s been acknowledged for years that workforce planning is important, because skilled workers are key to productivity, innovation and building a competitive advantage in a business. 

Without this, workforces will continue to be the greatest challenge facing the Australian economy. 

 Lena Constantine is Manager of ASAan Australian Apprenticeship Support Network provider, which is an initiative of the Australian Government. 

Her regular column features in WA Works magazine. Subscribe here for the quarterly magazine and fortnightly e-newsletter.

Share This Post

You may also be interested in

Crown contributes $1b to Australian economy, report shows
Crown contributes $1b to Australian economy, report shows
Crown Resorts has outlined its contribution to the national economy, with a new report showing it spent $1 billion a year on 3,882 suppliers across...
Read more »
State wage case, Nature Positive reforms lead advocacy efforts
State wage case, Nature Positive reforms lead advocacy efforts
The State wage case and Nature Positive reforms were front of mind for CCIWA's policy and advocacy team in April and May.
Read more »
Defence industry grants up to $1m for SMEs
Defence industry grants up to $1m for SMEs
Grant applications are open for small and medium businesses to help build Australia’s industrial defence base.
Read more »