Release type: Transcript


Press conference, Melbourne


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

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: The National Skills Commission report on 2022's Skills Priority List is quite remarkable insofar as there's been almost a doubling of shortages of occupations in the country. There's been an occupation shortage from last year of 153 occupations to 286 this year. That is a report card on the labour market in this nation but it's also an indictment on the failure of the Morrison Government to plan and invest in skills, education, and training in order to have the labour force that Australia requires. 

We need skills so that working people can find secure work. We need skills and labour to ensure that businesses have the skills that they need to survive and thrive and our economy is certainly in need of a great supply of skills. For that reason, the Albanese Government convened the Jobs and Skills Summit, bringing together employers, unions, and community groups to talk about the tasks ahead. 

It's for that reason tomorrow I meet with my counterparts in state and territory governments at the Ministerial Council where we will talk about how we deal with addressing the skills shortages in many sectors of the economy. Registered nurses, the tech industry, machine operators, baggage handlers, dentists, in fact, wherever you look across the economy and labour market, professions and trades and other occupations we see acute skills shortages in many respects. 

We need to, therefore, ensure that when we invest in education and training, we do so with a mind to existing and future skills shortages. We need to understand the labour market and the economy. The fact is that we have a dynamic economy, an economy that's transforming, a labour market that's changing exponentially and as a result we have to be much more sensitive to the changing nature of an economy so that we can provide the right advice to the VET sector and higher education in order to ensure that they equip our future workforce with the skills that are in need. 

We also need to ensure that we have effective skilled migration pathways. Immigration, skilled migration is a part of the solution but it's not the only part. It's not a binary choice. But it's true to say that the previous government seemed not to understand that immigration, apart from other things, is also an economic portfolio and the failure to accelerate or process skill visas in areas of shortage really exposed the previous government as an incompetent government when it came to the administration of skilled migration pathways.

Now it's true to say that the pandemic has had a very significant effect on the movement of people around the world and into Australia, understandably, and in fact, at the time, when in Opposition, we did support the closure of borders when there was no vaccination in order to protect our communities across the country. But, that is not the sole reason why there are skills shortages. 

A bit like the trillion dollars of debt we inherited, the skills shortages precede the pandemic and there was an inability by the previous government to fix this issue and there were design faults with policies they were implementing during the pandemic and I'll point to one. 

Firstly, the fact that they chose not to make eligible skilled visa holders in the economy, in the labour market working for businesses in Australia meant that those temporary visa holders left the country in much greater numbers, which has meant that it has compounded our skills shortage. The OECD has indicated that we have the second highest labour shortage in the developed world and this report today speaks to a labour market that has not been provided the skills for investing in skills and training. It points to the fact that the previous government dropped the ball on investing and skills and training. 

Now, our first decisions as Government included the convening of the summit, it included, of course, announcing the introduction of Jobs and Skills Australia. It also meant that we would be announcing 465,000 TAFE places, 180,000 fee free TAFE places in 2023, and an additional 20,000 university places. This is to ensure we do everything we can to attend to this shortage. As I say, a shortage that has been made worse by a failure to plan, failure to supply the skills needed by way of training, education, or skilled migration. A failure of the previous government to do the right thing here.

We will focus on this issue as a priority. We are investing, we are convening meetings with employers, we're asking employers what they need, we're working with the TAFE sector and the VET sector more generally and universities about what they need to help equip our future workforce and, indeed, reskill our existing workforce in areas of demand. 

And, finally, can I just add one thing on the shortages in the regions. If there are problems across the country, they are most acute in regional Australia. The difficulty that regional communities are having finding nurses, finding aged care workers, finding general practitioners, looking for tradespeople, looking for people in agriculture generally, has been very, very challenging for those in the regions and for that reason we need to make sure we're working with the regions. This can't just be a national approach, we have to look at sectors of the economy and look at regions and regional communities, and work with them as well, with state and local governments and local industry to make sure that we attend to these matters. 

What's happening in some parts of Queensland, for example, in regional Queensland, will be different to what's happening in parts of Melbourne. So whilst there is a general concern about shortages, as a government, we are very conscious of the fact that we have to deal with these issues with regard to the particular needs of each part of this great nation. Happy to take any questions. 

JOURNALIST: So overall, what are the key issues we're seeing job shortages at these levels?

O'CONNOR: Well, I think the key issues are that we have not sufficiently anticipated the changing nature of the labour market and the economy and invested in areas where there are those shortages. There's no doubt by not matching investment in training and education with areas of existing and future demand, we have not got the match-up right. Now that means we have to be far more effective and far more cost efficient in using taxpayers' money in a wise way. 

Jobs and Skills Australia will have a role to, one, identify existing shortages, two, forecast emerging areas of demand when it comes to skills, and advise the education and training sectors, industry, about what is needed, but also advise and inform government on not just investment, skills, and training but also the skilled migration pathways that will be needed to attend to the existing or emerging demands in the labour market, in the economy. 

There are skills that employers are crying out for and there are skills that workers need so that they can have skills that are in demand to have secure work. It is good for everyone, for employers, for workers, and for consumers who are finding it difficult to get the services they need, the goods they need, because we have these skills shortages. 

JOURNALIST: Do we know exactly what impact migration issues have had on these shortages?

O'CONNOR: I think it's fair to say, and it's been noted, that when you've had to slow or suspend skilled migration pathways as a result of a worldwide pandemic, particularly at a time when there was no vaccination, then, of course, it had an impact. When you stop the movement of people, we've been a country that relies, in part, on skilled migration, that has had a very significant impact and I acknowledge that and I have no criticism of the former government when it comes to having to make decisions at that time to stop the movement of people to protect Australians and their health and wellbeing. 

But, there were things that, you know, subsequent to obviously the pandemic's more difficult period, I think it's fair to say that we have a government agency or department that has not been able to accelerate visas in order to get the skilled migration pathways open again because a lack of resources when it came to providing the need - well, providing the ability to accelerate skilled visas - and a lack of focus by the previous government on this important issue as an economic imperative. 

So there's no doubt there's been impacts as a result of the pandemic, but as I say, there's also been a neglect, a dereliction by the previous government and so, too, with its failure to understand it needed to provide some level of support to those on skilled visas without which they would leave the country and leave the country they did. 

JOURNALIST: You've mentioned fee free places for TAFE and university. What specific occupations or areas would they be in?

O'CONNOR: That will be informed by the identification of shortages. So, in other words, we want to make sure that people are entering courses that will equip them with the sort of skills they will need for the existing and future labour market. That's why when we look at aged care, for example, that's another area which I guess the previous government did not do well in. It commissioned a report by the National Skill Commission - the report was certainly useful to advise government. It was never publicly released but just - it should have been.

Just take that point. We need to make sure we train more people in the aged care area to supply the skills that are needed, the labour that's needed in that sector. We understand that the shortages are only going to grow if we don't respond by way of investing in training and also attracting people to that sector, which is one of the reasons why the Albanese Government is supporting broadly the wage claim before the Fair Work Commission for aged care workers. They should be treated and valued properly. We need to retain and attract aged care workers and we need to make sure we're training and, through skilled migration pathways, finding ways to supply those workers. Because it's absolutely critical to look after older Australians that we do that. 

JOURNALIST: Where does Federal Labor stand on religious freedoms when it comes to Andrew Thorburn?

O'CONNOR: I'm not particularly wanting to conflate those two issues. I support religious freedom. Everyone who believes in a democracy believes people have the right to express themselves and have their own personal beliefs and I think that applies to every person in Australia. 

JOURNALIST: The Opposition Leader is pushing Anthony Albanese to reveal whether he thinks people should have to undermine their religious beliefs or risk losing - their jobs have been cancelled, what do you say to that?

O'CONNOR: As I say, I don't think people should be - I think people have a right to religious beliefs and personal beliefs. I don't think that's the matter that may be in question in relation to the matter you first raised. I think the fact is it's really up to the Essendon Football Club to explain what has happened there. Clearly, it would appear they were regretful in appointing a person to a position and then making a decision not to
continue that role. That's really for them to explain. I understand they're doing that as we speak.

Thanks very much.