Interview - ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: If you’ve been to a hospital or a café lately or tried to find a plumber or an electrician, you know, if you’re a school principal and you need teachers, then I don’t need to tell you there’s a national skill shortage. The demand for workers continues to grow with more than 300,000 job vacancies advertised in August. Now the skills priority list shows the number of occupations experiencing a shortage has almost doubled in the past 12 months.
Brendan O’Connor is the Minister for Skills and Training, and he joins us this morning. Minister, welcome.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good morning, Patricia.
KARVELAS: The number of industries crying out for workers has grown from 153 to 286. The borders have been open for nearly a year now after the sort of worst of the shutdown of the pandemic. Why is this problem getting worse?
O’CONNOR: Well, it’s a report card on the labour market today, but it’s an indictment on the lack of planning for years. These things are not things that have happened overnight; they’re structural, and it goes to a number of areas which I think you’d understand. Firstly, you need to have a skilled migration pathways that are identifying shortages and, of course, attracting people with those skills to supply the skills required for the economy. A lack of investment in education and training in areas of demand and also failure to forecast the changing nature of the economy and labour market so as to anticipate future demand, that needs to be attended to.
So, we inherited some very significant challenges. Firstly, there was real problems with the visa processing of skilled migrants, whether they were temporary or permanent. There was a lack of resources to accelerate or expedite those visas, which we’re now attending to. And I also think our education and training sectors haven’t been provided the right advice and the right investment in the right areas to supply the skills the economy has needed today and for tomorrow.
And that’s why we started, I think, this term pretty quickly with the Jobs and Skills Summit, you know, we looked to create the Jobs and Skills Australia Body and I’m meeting the skills ministers tomorrow of state and territory governments to work through these issues. So, there’s – these issues are complex, but they are urgent. And it is a priority of the Albanese Government.
KARVELAS: The Federal Government is lifting the cap on migration to 190,000 a year. Are we seeing migrant workers wanting to come here in the numbers that we actually need?
O’CONNOR: You know, that’s a good point. I think we are an attractive – we are an attractive destination for many migrants, obviously. But there is a competition for certain skills. And, therefore, we need to consider where there are acute shortages in areas of – and where there are global shortages of particular skills, we have to be cleverer about how we attract highly skilled or skills in demand and – because it’s a competitive world.
And for that reason, we made it clear we’re going to shift the emphasis from temporary to permanent skilled migration pathways because that is more likely to attract people with those sets of skills that are in need because they’ll have a sense of belonging, a sense of security they do not get from a temporary visa.
That’s not to say that temporary visas don’t matter – they do. They do help supplement the labour market. But there’s been an over reliance on those visas compared with the permanent skilled migration pathways. You just take nurses which are on this priority list. We have a very significant shortage of nurses. Yes, we need to invest more to train more nurses here for the qualifications required, but we also need to attract that profession. And there are other places that people can choose other than Australia, and so we have to think about what we need to do to provide the right set of incentives so – and also invest in areas, you know, in our education and training sector so people go into the labour market with the skills that are in demand, because that provides security of employment, too.
KARVELAS: Would you lift migration even higher to try and better address the skills shortage given this report shows it’s actually significantly worse than we even thought?
O’CONNOR: Well, there was a significant increase for the year, and we’ll consider what we need to do, if we need to do more.
KARVELAS: So, you are prepared to go further given the report tells us it’s actually worse than you’d known?
O’CONNOR: Look, can I say, I understood that this report – I anticipated that this report was going to be quite staggering. I understood by engaging with employers and other bodies that this number was significant. It’s almost doubling the occupation list. But we knew because of the lack of investment, the lack of skilled migration pathways, the pandemic, we knew that this was going to be, you know, a very significant increase. And then I have to say we were - so to that extent our decision to increase the threshold, the skilled migration numbers for the year, was informed in part as a result of that.
Look, we’ll have to assess what we do here. But I do believe, you know, the investment in 180,000 fee-free TAFE places, the 20,000 additional university places, the overall 465,000 places in the VET sector was the right call at the time, and we’ll have to assess whether that’s sufficient.
And we also call on employers and industry to also invest in skills. It’s not just a government job; it’s a partnership, it’s a national challenge, not a government challenge. And we need to see employers investing as well. And I think they understand that. And many employers do invest well in this skills area, but others could do better, frankly.
And I think we need to get the training and education sectors better, more integrated, more sensitive to current and future skills shortages. And I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we invest what is billions of dollars in areas to equip people in areas that aren’t necessarily the ones in demand. So, we have to be much better in investing in areas. And that’s why the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia involving state and territory governments, employers, unions and others will inform us I think more effectively about today and about tomorrow’s labour market. That’s critical if we’re going to see, you know, our economy grow, and the shortage alleviated.
KARVELAS: Okay. Brendan O’Connor, skills shortages aren’t the only economic challenge that your government is grappling with. There’s a lot of discussion about the stage 3 tax cuts. Are you comfortable with people at the higher end getting tax breaks when areas like health and education are under enormous pressure?
O’CONNOR: Well, I think we pointed out some of our concerns at the time but made a commitment to stage 3, and that commitment has not altered.
KARVELAS: But the decision – no, okay. So, the decision hasn’t altered yet. There is discussion about it. Do you think that discussion needs to happen?
O’CONNOR: I think we should have discussions about the changing nature of the economy and what we do. And I know that the Treasurer, Prime Minister, Finance Minister, the ERC and the cabinet are looking at these issues. There’s a very, very significant process right now as we prepare for the budget in three weeks looking to find savings from the misspent rorts and waste that we saw.
I think we need to consider these things. But let’s remember that the stage 3 tax cuts is not until almost – what – two years away. And we have to consider the immediate matters before us and deal with them now. I mean, it’s not that these tax cuts take effect this year or next year–
KARVELAS: No, they don’t, but the idea of whether they should be looked at, revisited, changed, do you think that’s acceptable that you consider that?
O’CONNOR: I think we need to examine what we do and be completely honest with the Australian people and look at the circumstances and see if they’ve changed. My point is that if a week is a long time in politics, nearly two years is an eternity. I think we need to focus on what we can do now, and that is finding savings because of the waste, making sure that when we invest we invest in areas that will increase productivity and economic growth, such as skills and training and education, such as infrastructure that can actually lead to economic growth that will alleviate our – the more than a trillion dollars of public debt we inherited from the Morrison Government.
O’CONNOR: So, I think we need to look at those things. But let’s remember, it is nearly two years away.
KARVELAS: Okay. Finally, there’s been a lot of disquiet following Andrew Thorburn’s decision to quit as chair of Essendon. He said that his faith wasn’t welcome at the club. Peter Dutton has weighed in. He's very concerned about this. Is this a case of religious discrimination?
O’CONNOR: Well, I’m not – I don’t believe a body such as Essendon should sort of consciously appoint someone who is openly bigoted towards a significant portion of the Australian population. I think in 2022 we should be expecting people holding such senior positions to be tolerant of others.
KARVELAS: Does that mean Christians or Muslims, people who have strong views about things like homosexuality can’t be the head of sporting bodies like this?
O’CONNOR: I think that if a body has a set of values and those values are contradicted by personal beliefs - who by the way can hold those personal beliefs - but I'm saying if they hold those views that are contrary to the values of a given organisation then, of course, then there’s an issue. But can I just say with respect to the matter itself, I think the Essendon Football Club has handled this very badly. There should have been due diligence before the appointment, and now I’m not sure whether they’ve handled the way – they’ve handled this entirely well.
But my personal view is in 2022 in such positions you would not expect an organisation to appoint someone who an executive position that’s contrary to the values the body espouses.
KARVELAS: Interesting. Brendan O’Connor, Minister, thank you so much for joining us.
O’CONNOR: Thanks, PK.
KARVELAS: That’s the Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor.