President’s column – 30 October 2020

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

The call for Australians to acquire new skills or train for completely new roles has become louder in recent months – and it has created opportunities for us.

Covid-19 is the reason federal and state governments are talking up the need for greater flexibility and skills development – particularly at the vocational level – and local government could benefit substantially if we play a strategic long game.

Skills acquisition and enhancement has been a long-time preoccupation of governments – though it is fair to say that the general level of enthusiasm for training, particularly apprenticeships, has flagged in recent decades.

There are many reasons for this. 

Suffice to say, employers and governments of all stripes have found it easier and more expedient to import skilled people from overseas rather than going to the trouble and expense of maintaining a world-class vocational and educational training sector and teaming it with sufficient numbers of local apprenticeships or development roles.

Everyone wants an “instant’ employee”.

But with the big Covid-related surge in unemployment this year and the suspension of Australia’s skilled migrant program (probably for two or three years at least), combined with huge surpluses of employees in affected sectors such as international tourism and international education, governments have recognised they must change tack.

In April, the Federal Government took steps to enable apprentices and trainees who had recently lost their jobs from small businesses to link up with employers with vacancies.

Employers (including councils) engaging laid-off apprentices or trainees were made eligible for a wage subsidy equal to 50 percent of the apprentice or trainee’s wage.

There was further movement on the apprenticeship front on Budget night, when Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced a new federal wage subsidy for a new or recommencing apprentice or trainee for the period up to 30 September 2021, worth up to $7000 a quarter.

Again, local councils around Australia have been deemed eligible for this subsidy.

Additionally, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has announced a new initiative worth $5.7 million to support current and emerging regional leaders develop their leadership skills further.

More information on the Building Resilient Regional Leaders Initiative is expected shortly.

Councils, particularly in the regions must take full advantage of these skill initiatives, not just for our own purposes but for the wider community’s benefit.

Local governments, notably those in rural and remote areas, are significant infrastructure and service providers. They are commonly the major employer, providing an avenue of employment for many occupations.

The more skilled we are in performing our functions and delivering our many services, the better off our communities will be.

Councils can offer skilled people, or those keen to learn a trade, plentiful jobs, and worthwhile career paths – and plenty of them. Our sector employs upwards of 194,000 workers in close to 400 occupations – and that figure will rise as federal and state government stimulus measures are implemented.

And the focus on regional careers has rarely been higher. In a major speech before the federal Budget, Mr McCormack said: “Regional Australians want opportunities to acquire new skills.

“Government policy must and will aim to encourage young Australians to gain their education, live and work at home in the regions. We want them to stay in the regions, invest in the regions, raise a family in the regions; we want young Australians to know they thrive in the regions.”

That is welcome news for rural and regional local governments. However, the skills investment boom will potentially float urban boats as well.

As ALGA’s Local Government Workforce and Future Skills Report related in 2018, nearly seven in 10 local governments are experiencing a skill shortage or skills gap, and 60 percent of local governments have “unmet training needs arising from the high cost of training and lack of training available locally”.

Moreover, the local government workforce is older than the general Australian workforce, has an ongoing declining participation level of workers under 30 years of age, and does not have enough apprentices to meet future needs. 

Indeed, apprenticeships between 2012-17 declined more than 60 percent – three times greater than the general workforce. 

With an additional $1.2 billion being invested to support the employment of 100,000 new apprentices and trainees, councils should move quickly to plug their skills gaps.

Have you checked out the new programs in the Budget?

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President