Addressing the Skills Crisis With Real Collaboration

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CEO of IBSA Group, the long time shaper of workforce skills and supporter of the manufacturing industry, Sharon Robertson, sat down to tell Manufacturers’ Monthly the key takeaways from the group’s recent skills forum as well as the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit.

On 17 August, IBSA’s Manufacturing Skills Forum brought manufacturers, union leaders, peak bodies and training providers together to share strategies to address the skills crisis. When interviewing SMEs and different organisations every month for stories in this magazine, a common thread is the lack of skilled manufacturing workers available in this country.

The Forum highlighted the need for a collaborative and systematic approach, with government and industry working together to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. For instance, the requirement for better dialogue between government and industry was jointly raised by Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union national president Andrew Dettmer, and Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox.

Willox reiterated that any skills response must have industry at the forefront, and that industry and education must be linked to produce outcomes. Dettmer also called to address the lack of support mechanisms in the current system for young apprentices moving between employers.

Panel discussions broached topics like engaging the workforce and locking in opportunities, addressing labour shortages, the impact of new technologies and the skills system response.

While a range of strategies can be adopted, including use of skilled migration, there’s little doubt skilling Australia’s workforce is central to future- proofing the national economy.
According to the National Skills Commission, 60 per cent of businesses are currently recruiting and 30 per cent of those report recruitment difficulties. The manufacturing industry is having more difficulty finding workers than other industries, and 40 per cent of technical and trade occupations are in shortage. This increased competition for labour supply will mean that employers will need to develop new ways of identifying, attracting and skilling up the workforce.

So, Manufacturers’ Monthly caught up with CEO of IBSA Sharon Robertson, to ponder what solutions Australia can and should deploy to ease the problem continuing to rear its head in the manufacturing industry.

How was IBSA’s Manufacturing Skills Forum? What were the key takeaways?

The day was a big success, starting with its participation. It was well attended by the key leaders of our manufacturing sector and our skills sector. Minister O’Connor was very generous with his time, and overstayed his allocated time, which is always a good sign. Minister O’Connor has actually just asked to meet with me again to talk through some of the outcomes of the forum.

It was a great opportunity for collaboration. And that collaboration wasn’t just amongst the key players here in Australia, but internationally too. I think Australia’s manufacturing and skills sectors have forged and further developed relationships through the forum discussions, which is evident by a number of the follow ups – international organisations want to continue the dialogue going forward, because the challenges that we’re facing here in Australia are similar to everywhere else.

About collaboration, one point that’s jumped out at me, was the changing language from the Minister about government working as a partner with industry. I felt that was a really positive shift in language. Equally, Innes Willox of the Ai Group, one of our presenters in the morning and discussed the importance of listening to industry.

He said that’s the key to improving our skill system. So obviously, we’ve taken his comments onboard and are looking at how to better achieve that at an operational level.

We’re all abundantly clear that we need new skills, not just for the advancements in technology, but the new skills that are needed to fill the gaps in our supply chain are things we’ve not done here before. So, that means not just obviously a new set of skills etc, but more importantly a new way of actually providing that training and skills. One of the things that came through in the discussions is that we need toadapt and adjust the way we’re delivering skills – the sophistication in thinking is really encouraging.

While there is still a place for face-to-face delivery, the needs and expectations of learners are changing. The forum identified the importance of industry having different types of skills responses available, including online learning, workplace simulations and augmented reality.

Industry and training providers will need to work together to deliver contemporary insights into training new skills. There is important discussion to be had about how we respond to industry training needs in a way that has value for the employer, the individual and industry.

How was the Jobs and Skills Summit? What were the key insights?

There’s a number of things. The Jobs and Skills Summit has thrown down challenges and opportunities for the sector to respond to. And we are certainly keen to look at how we can drive some of the outcomes from the Summit, which had clear overlaps with the conversations that were had at IBSA’s Forum.

It’s about building on those relationships that have been forged through this and extending those to sharing lessons learnt and collaborating in a more comprehensive way at every level. How do we influence and shape the reform, so it provides the opportunities that we talked about for the manufacturing sector in particular?

One of the takeaways from the skills summit was the the increase in migrant workers to 35,000 per year. How do we attract more skilled migrants?

We’re certainly competing against many countries for skilled migrants. We can’t talk to what the skilled migration system needs to do as that’s a little bit outside our purview. It is clear that we need to look at different ways of addressing the labour shortage.

There’s been a number of discussions, not only at our forum, but also at the summit, about looking for some of the cohorts in Australia that could potentially fill the gaps in our labour market at the moment. A number of initiatives have been discussed to encourage people choosing not to work, either in the luxurious position of being able to retire, pensioners or various others to re-enter the workforce. Other untapped cohorts include those who are disadvantaged and women.

A case in point, the NDIS is not connected to our sectors in a way that readily identifies where the employment opportunities could or should be. So, you can see that there’s a lot of linkages that haven’t been made within our government, systems and society to actually start reprogramming how we think about things. There are some great examples where disadvantaged people have been able to step into the workforce. I think we should be doing more to help employers to do that.

It’s about looking at things differently and providing the employers and the system with the mechanisms and tools to respond to this shortage, not just trying the same thing and expecting a different result.

How can we make it easier for employers to attract those underutilised cohorts?

Number one is the basics about doing a better job of not only promoting but describing the role. For example, traditionally, manufacturing roles have been described in classic ‘blokey’ ways.

The female cohort could be overlooked because they don’t describe roles in a way that’s attractive to them. Overall, there’s huge opportunities in the manufacturing sector.. It certainly needs to have more promotion about how it’s operating now in more highly automated, clean and specialised areas, not the traditional paradigms of long hours at dirty factories not necessarily attracting the highest skill levels. It’s quite the opposite these days, as you know.

I think career counsellors, as a case in point, could do more to help reposition the opportunities, particularly in advanced manufacturing and also the scaffolding of people’s careers in and out of manufacturing. It’s so broad and doesn’t mean you’ll be quarantined, if you choose a career in manufacturing.

Skills is such a pervasive issue across the across the whole sector that it’s not just about looking to the government or TAFEs to provide a skilled workforce. Employers need to get involved in the debate and the discussions, whether on a local level with other similar employers or on a broader national level. One way or another, the more employers can
be involved in the debate and in what types of skills are needed, the better the outcomes will be.

Speaking of a creative mindset, how do we encourage young people with talent to support the manufacturing industry?

One of our speakers at the forum, BAE Systems, spoke about working on qualification innovation including things like work-based engineering degrees, where people work alongside studying. This means they come out with job ready skills, as opposed to spending years doing the study and then needing several more years to be truly job ready.

It’s a much stronger integration of traditional qualifications and vocational education and training.

We need to provide much stronger and more effective scaffolding between VET and higher education, so people can move from one to the other to support their skills development needs. At the moment, I think individuals, particularly young people, are faced with the challenge of choosing which way they go. I don’t think it should be an either-or option.

In summary, let’s ensure we continue the discussions about improving skills and addressing the labour shortages in manufacturing. The more collaborative and engaged the whole ecosystem can be, the better it will be for workers, employers and the nation as a whole.

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