Page 3507 - Week 11 - Wednesday, 21 September 2005

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Skills shortage in itself is a problem but it can be a sign of many things. It can be a sign of a booming economy. As the ANU’s Professor Bob Gregory has argued, there is every reason to welcome, in some sense, a skills shortage if it leads to the hiring and training of people, especially young people, who would otherwise remain on welfare or as part of the unskilled working poor.

If we have a skills shortage, we should be looking immediately at the people within our own jurisdiction who can benefit from it. Older people also have a great many skills. Until recently, most of those have been cast aside when they reach unfashionable ages. A skills shortage is a way of reintegrating older people into the work force and taking advantage of their skills, expertise and long experience. There are other things we need to look at, of course. One is the issue that a skills shortage may also be a sign of bad planning, especially in education and training, not only of government policy—although that is central—but also policy in the private sector.

There is the second error of scapegoating. Employers today complain that they do not have enough skilled tradesmen but, over the past 20 years, training rates in the metals, building, construction, vehicle and electrical trades have declined by some 16 per cent, and this in the face of warnings from employer groups that investment in training was being badly neglected. Instead there has been a tendency to poach, to outsource, to believe blindly in new technology and to rely on casual or short-term appointments. It is all part of the increasing tendency, in some areas, to pay by the hour, assess your profitability by the quarter and not look to the long term. Only yesterday the Prime Minister spoke about impediments to training wages in many awards that make it difficult for people to get into those industries. The fact is that all major stakeholders—governments, employers and unions—have connived in creating the skills shortage. They now need to collaborate in doing something about it not by short-term panic measures, but through rational medium and long-term strategies.

Then there are statistics. The clearest example here is unemployment statistics. Employment formally begins if you work for one hour a week. Sometimes you can be formally employed if you only work for one hour and do not get paid for it. There are a lot of people to be blamed for this. This is, of course, an ABS definition but it is also taken from the International Labour Organisation—that much-vaunted organisation of the left.

We need to be cognisant of other gauges of joblessness. This includes people who cannot find sufficient work to meet all their economic needs and who want to obtain more. According to Mr Fred Argy, using this definition, the definition of the national employment rate could jump to as much as nine per cent. Conversely, Mr Argy contends that the number of jobless who are classically unemployed is some 150,000, compared to 900,000 who are probably underemployed.

There is much we can do. The most important thing we can do in the short term is reintegrate older workers into the mainstream economy, while bringing unskilled younger people into employment for the first time. The former is obvious; it is the most effective short-term expedient; but the latter is not some sort of distant goal. At the moment there are people who are underemployed or unemployed because they are unskilled. A lot of skills are not difficult to obtain. The recent ABS figures on jobs growth show that the largest areas of increase are 9.5 per cent for advanced clerical and

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