Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC 702 Breakfast with James Valentine


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training

JAMES VALENTINE: Brendan O'Connor, Minister for Skills and Training, good morning. It's so intriguing in a sense, isn't it, that post the lockdown and post the last couple of years of COVID we've been left in this place?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well, that's right. Firstly, there were shortages before the pandemic. But certainly the pandemic has compounded this challenge, because we had effectively the slowing down or suspension of permanent and temporary skilled migration pathways. When you think about having at least 160,000 to 190,000 skilled migrants coming in annually, and you slow or stop that, and you see a flight of temporary visa holders out of the country because they were not provided any support under JobKeeper or JobSeeker, you're left with a very significant challenge in dealing with skill and labour shortages. The OECD has effectively indicated that Australia has the second highest labour shortage in the developed world. So this is a huge challenge for the country. And of course, we will be discussing these issues at the Jobs and Skills Summit in a couple of weeks.
VALENTINE: I'm intrigued with the migration with temporary visa kind of things, I still don't quite get why that's not a quicker fix. Why we can't suddenly just go if you're on temporary visa before you can come back now or, you know, let's try and speed up the immigration process perhaps. You can come in on this recognition and then we can do more of the process once you're here.
O'CONNOR: We're looking to unclog what has been effectively an under resourced area of government to assess, firstly, temporary visa holders so they can get on to permanent pathways. Clare O'Neil and Andrew Giles, my ministerial colleagues, are working on that. And also, of course, getting people, attracting people, back into the country. We need to do that. But we have an under resourced Home Affairs department, we have a clogged up application process which we have to accelerate. Frankly, there were a lot of temporary visa holders that are very upset with the way they felt they were treated. Employers could not continue employing them because they never received any form of support even when, as we know, there was a lot of support for the economy, not for those people.
VALENTINE: A lot of those people had been there for years, too. These weren't people that had been there for 12 months. This is not backpackers, a lot of people were on temporary visas for long periods of time and were then pretty much thrown out of the country.
O'CONNOR: For years. And one of the terrible things I've come across just as a local MP is how many people have worked for almost a decade on temporary visas, have got all of the requirements to become a permanent resident and citizen, and yet they have not been able to manage and navigate the system. So we have to do a lot better in that regard. But we must also invest in our existing workforce more effectively. So it is about skilled migration. But it's also, James, about investing in our workforce, and indeed those that come into the workforce in the areas of demand.
We need to make sure we equip them with skills and knowledge in existing skill shortage areas and emerging shortages, in other words, anticipating the changes in the labour market. Because as you've just said earlier, businesses are crying out for working people, the work of professionals. And also can I say workers are crying out for the skills that they need, so they can have a secure job.
VALENTINE: Yeah, you're hearing from Brendan O'Connor, Minister for Skills and Training. Now, Mr O'Connor, you're heading off to Strathfield and Ryde TAFEs. Now I've already got a text from someone saying well, look at all the problems with TAFE over the years, lack of teachers, old equipment, constant restructures, constant closures, a mess for students, teachers and staff. That's what you're going to be hearing as you walk in the door, isn't it?
O'CONNOR: Well, there are some very significant challenges. And frankly, we have under invested in the VET sector. And we haven't always invested wisely in terms of areas of skill shortage. So one of the reasons I'm going to different campuses of TAFE NSW is it is the largest vocational education training provider. And so I think there's 130 locations across the state. There's 430,000 enrolments a year. So it's a huge part of the VET sector, but we want to put TAFE back at the centre of the VET sector because it should be the predominant provider, along with other providers, but it should be the central provider of skills.
VALENTINE: Are you bringing money back into that? Are you committing, you know, the the millions that are needed?
O'CONNOR: Well, that's why, certainly within government we're working through what we can do to increase expenditure. Of course, we provide much of the money to the states and territories who provide the training. So I've been meeting with ministerial counterparts in all state and territory governments. There should have been a National Skills Agreement finalised June 30 last year, but it never happened. The previous federal government could not reach agreement with any state or territory government. So we are moving to fix that.
The Prime Minister will be meeting with Premiers before the Jobs and Skills Summit. I'm conducting meetings with the skills ministers, because this challenge, James, has to involve state and territory governments, employers and unions, training providers and others. It can't just be the commonwealth, it is a partnership with industry. And we need to work on these issues. Some of these issues -
VALENTINE: TAFE is federal funding, though, isn't it?
O'CONNOR: TAFE has federal and state funding. There are very significant, I mean, billions of taxpayers' dollars invested in the VET sector and universities. And I just make that point too, we need universities and TAFE and the VET sector generally working together because it is universities and the VET sector institutions that are providing the skills to the labour market. And we need to-
VALENTINE: The main point here is that then your government is now in a position to increase funding to TAFEs to stop the constant rundown of these institutions, which have been such a valuable part of Australian life for so long. Is that is that what you're committing to?
O'CONNOR: Yes, can I just say we want the federal and state and territory governments to do better to increase spending, but also spend it in areas of demand. One of the problems is there's been a mismatch, because if you cannot precisely identify the skill shortages, you're not necessarily investing in the areas where there is that demand. Now, we have to make sure that when we're training young people and other workers, they are acquiring those skills that will make sure that they have a secure job and that businesses can find the skills and labour that they need. Now, that is not happening as well as it should.
The Jobs and Skills Summit provides an opportunity for us to go through these issues. Some of them are quicker fixes than others. There'll be an employment white paper that comes out of that. Some of these issues are structural, systemic and cultural and will take longer. But if we work together, employers, unions and governments, civil society, I think we can get a lot done. Because I think everyone understands that this is a huge issue for our economy, for the country, for businesses and for workers alike.
VALENTINE: Well, good luck today. This is certainly what we should be doing, should be talking about. It's so widespread. I mean, there really isn't a profession that - I can't think of anything in Sydney at the moment that's overstaffed, has got too many people, you know it's completed the other way. Brendan O'Connor, thanks for your time.
Thanks very much, James.