OPINION: Plenty of jobs but workers in wrong place

Western Australia is crying out for skilled labour and the federal government needs to convince east coast workers to go west, writes Susanne Bahn.

ALTHOUGH jobs are being cut in regions such as the Hunter Valley and regional Western Australia, a  study  by researchers at Edith Cowan University shows  a shortage of highly skilled workers in Australia. 

This year we interviewed 17 people from resource sector businesses in Western Australia who employ workers on 457 (four year) visas. We also spoke to 30 migrant workers in professional roles in the resources sector.

 ‘‘Professional roles’’  means project managers and engineers, not truck drivers, labourers and trades people.

We also interviewed seven support agency representatives, such as migration and relocation agents. 

Right now in Australia, we have a situation  where we do not have enough workers with highly specialised skills, and resource companies are reluctant to employ workers without experience because they are often responsible for multi-million dollar machinery.

The study  recommended training organisations  ensure work experience and work placements are part of what they deliver.

Australian workers who were being made redundant in industries such as manufacturing could be retrained  to move across into the resources sector. 

The study suggested that federal and state governments may need to provide incentives and support to retrain workers to move out of declining industry into growth areas. 

Finally, there was evidence in the study that some workers on the east coast with the specialised skills needed are available for work but they were reluctant to take up employment in the west. Furthermore, the federal government’s relocation scheme for unemployed workers offering $7000 to relocate to Western Australia was unsuccessful.  Only 37 people took up that offer.

Recruiters said the reasons  included:  the distance from family and friends; fly-in fly-out work arrangements, thereby leaving the lonely and isolated spouse in a new city; and the high cost of living in Western Australia.   But our cost-benefit analysis  showed that Western Australian workers had almost 30 per cent residual income after tax and living expenses.

Overseas workers are not a cheap option and this study showed that businesses would prefer to employ an Australian worker before sourcing overseas labour.

 In many cases for resources projects, highly-skilled workers are brought in from overseas in the short term to complete the construction phase, after which, long term production jobs are available for Australian workers.

However, little is known about the longer term impact  on our labour market of workers on 457 visas. 

In short, we need  work ready graduates, we need   to retrain redundant workers and we need to   attract skilled workers  to the west through incentives and support. 

Dr Susanne Bahn is a senior Lecturer at the Edith Cowan University’s School of Management.

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