In all the talk about skills shortages in the Australian economy, there has been little attention given to what this means in regional Australia, where it really counts.
University of the Sunshine Coast research involving interviews with senior regional business managers highlights supply and demand issues concerning the regional skills shortage in growth areas, and more insidious problems involving poor management practices in business and the lack of basic skills by many staff.
The Sunshine Coast, like the rest of Australia, has experienced a skills shortage because of the demand caused by years of economic growth and increased consumer spending. It has also been affected by rises in average household earnings by 70 per cent, faster than the national average of 60 per cent. In particular, the Sunshine Coast has been caught in a skills crisis because of the large number of new arrivals and their particular characteristics.
For instance, while the largest group arriving on the Sunshine Coast is aged 30-45, with one or more children under 10, there has also been an influx of those over 55. These two groups are creating demands for different services and skills sets at the same time.
Interviews indicated serious skills shortages across health services, tourism and hospitality, retail, education, construction, information and technology and automotive sectors.
There is even a lack of chefs, client service assistants, and - not unexpectedly - professionals such as solicitors, accountants and engineers.
On the supply side, a problem in regional Australia has been the lower than national average participation rates by young people, especially young males, in extended secondary and post-secondary education.
Supply of skilled staff has been affected by the fact that 90 per cent of businesses in regional Australia employ fewer than 20 staff, and often fewer than five staff. Such small businesses are least able to invest in staff training or apprentices to develop long-term skill strategies, or to recruit the right people.
Many seniors or single parents coming to regions face too many obstacles to employment. Their considerable skills are often underutilised.
What was really depressing about the research was reportage that even basic generic written and oral skills of many staff were poor and that interpersonal skills, overall work ethic and general attitudes essential in most service sector jobs were lacking.
One manager said: “There is no longer hospitality in the hospitality industry.” This is an indictment of the education system and possibly the contemporary family structure that is failing to deliver both the right skills and the right attitudes. Fuelling these issues are generational changes where values such as loyalty and punctuality are disappearing.
Combined with other research findings about the poor supervisory skills of many middle managers, Australia does not have the quantity or quality of competent management staff to succeed in the future. Australia could become a second-rate economy unable to maximise its tourism opportunities because of its skills deficiencies.
Wayne Graham and Dr Scott Prasser of the University of the Sunshine Coast have completed research on skills shortages on the Sunshine Coast that has implications for growth regions across Australia. First published in The Courier-Mail on February, 21 2008.
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