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Australia’s chronic skills crisis: The jobs we need to fill, but can’t

·10-min read
Many workers in critical industries are skilled migrants – but COVID-19 has made this a major problem. (Photo: Brook Mitchell)
Many workers in critical industries are skilled migrants – but COVID-19 has made this a major problem. (Photo: Brook Mitchell)

Angela Thwaites runs a boutique nursing recruitment firm in Sydney. Even at the best of times, she might find herself one or two nurses shy of being able to fully meet demand.

That was before the pandemic. These days, she’s facing a candidate drought from so many directions it makes pre-COVID staffing issues look like a walk in the park.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“Going back five or 10 years, we’ve always had a mild shortage of registered nurses, and that’s nothing new. It was manageable. Then the pandemic hit.”

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At the heart of the problem, Thwaites says, is the closure of international borders. She estimates roughly 70 per cent of nursing staff in any typical hospital or aged care facility are our “international friends”.

“Our industry relies on skilled international workers. They were coming in by the truckloads in years gone by,” she said.

But with the borders tightly shut, she’s running into brick walls trying to find qualified healthcare professionals to fill every nursing role, from qualified RNs (registered nurses) to aged carers and AINs (assistants in nursing).

Healthcare HQ director Angela Thwaites' staffing issues have worsened since COVID-19. (Source: Supplied)
Healthcare HQ director Angela Thwaites' staffing issues have worsened since COVID-19. (Source: Supplied)

RNs have been hardest to come by. NSW Health has swept up most of them in a massive hiring blitz to staff the vaccine centres and COVID-19 testing hubs. Meanwhile, the flow of AINs that would typically come through education courses have dried up.

“They come here to study, get their certificate, and off we go. And the courses are closing down. They’re collapsing,” Thwaites said. It’s the downfall of an entire subsector in and of itself.

“I’m at the other end of that. No one’s coming into the country, and they’re not coming out of these courses.”

Though the critical nature of the healthcare sector has become even more important in the pandemic, Thwaites says she knows other industries are going through the same thing.

“The shortage comes down to our industries being multicultural. And it’s the same in hospitality. It's the same with kitchen and catering, food factories and truck drivers.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 10: Staff prepare COVID-19 vaccines in the pharmacy area at the Olympic Park Vaccination Centre on May 10, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. The mass vaccination centre at Sydney Olympic Park is equipped to administer 30,000 vaccine doses a week, depending on federal vaccine supplies. (Photo by James Gourley - Pool/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 10: Staff prepare COVID-19 vaccines in the pharmacy area at the Olympic Park Vaccination Centre on May 10, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. The mass vaccination centre at Sydney Olympic Park is equipped to administer 30,000 vaccine doses a week, depending on federal vaccine supplies. (Photo by James Gourley - Pool/Getty Images)

‘Most critical labor shortage of the last 20 years’

Australia’s reliance on migrant workers is certainly not exclusive to the nursing industry. According to recruitment experts, Australia is suffering from a shortage of critical skills, a nation-wide issue that predated COVID-19 but has now been pushed over the edge.

“Competition for top talent in Australia is tough and only getting tougher,” Robert Half director Nicole Gorton told Yahoo Finance. “At the same time, however, Australia’s pool of skilled talent to fill these roles is in short supply.”

Employment and workplace consultant Conrad Liveris describes the issue as “the most critical labour shortage” of the last two decades, “if not longer”.

“It is so widespread,” he said. “Previous shortages have been confined to particular sectors. But not now.”

The specifics of Australia’s skill shortages are laid bare in a list published by the National Skills Commission. Its most recently published list counts no less than 57 occupations of “national shortage with strong future demand”.

Many of these are in highly skilled, specialised sectors such as industry-specific engineers, accountants and auditors, pharmacists, psychologists, aged, and childcare workers, and veterinarians. Trades like locksmiths and electricians, cooks and bakers, gardeners are also on the list.

Residents visit a pharmacy in the Fairfield suburb in Sydney on August 2, 2021, during the city's prolonged Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Residents visit a pharmacy in the Fairfield suburb in Sydney on August 2, 2021, during the city's prolonged Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

And that’s only a chunk of the iceberg; the rest of the list names a further 96 jobs that are earmarked for either moderate or soft future demand, which include jobs such as construction project managers, bricklayers and panel beaters, plumbers and glaziers, and machinery operators and telecommunications technicians.

The true nature of Australia’s migrant problem

Gartner research & advisory vice president Aaron McEwan believes we’ve become too reliant on migrant workers.

“Historically, we’ve been able to import talent relatively cheaply compared to other countries. Rather than retraining and upskilling our own workforce, we’ve taken the easy and cost-efficient approach of attracting both high and low-skilled individuals from overseas,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“It’s become clear that our somewhat lazy attitude towards local talent development has come at a high price.”

Image of masked Brisbane worker sweeping. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)
Australia's skills shortage has been worsened by the closed borders. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

With Australia scrambling to contain the wildly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, it’s anyone’s guess as to when the international travel ban will be lifted. Meanwhile, in-demand workers are quitting their jobs in droves and gaining a newfound sense of their value.

“Doctors, nurses, aged care employees and more are absorbing longer hours and a heavier load to cover the gap. Their exhaustion is leading to a second talent crisis, where burned out staff quit to seek better conditions,” said McEwan.

On the other hand, Gorton believes the atmosphere of instability and insecurity triggered by the pandemic might lead some workers to question whether now is the best time to vie for a new gig.

“The war for talent is being in part driven by residual uncertainty which is encouraging fewer workers to enter the jobs market,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the healthcare industry at least, Thwaites believes the ‘migrants are stealing our jobs’ trope has got it backwards.

Rather, no one local wants the jobs.

“All the new grads, they all go for the ED, ICU, trauma stuff – I call it the ‘buzz wards’,” said Thwaites. “They don’t want to work in the geriatric wards and nursing homes. That’s where the shortage is … It’s a tough gig.”

And while some Australians of older generations might remark that there’s ‘no one local’ working the ward, Thwaites recognises and stands by how hardworking her diverse workforce is, who all have to pass her screening processes, some of the most stringent in the country.

“These international AINs, they’re gorgeous. Nepalese are born carers. Filipinos are absolutely beautiful.”

“But no one Australian wants to work in these conditions anymore.”

Where are the skills shortages?

  • HEALTHCARE

Nurses of all types are in acute demand at the moment. The National Skills Commission’s list also names sonographers, optometrists, orthopists, pharmacists, pathologists, psychologists, childcare workers, aged and disabled carers as facing strong future demand.

A recent CEDA report found that Australia will need at least 400,000 aged care workers by 2050 unless we take urgent action now.

  • IT, TECH, CYBERSECURITY

The pandemic further accelerated the digitisation of businesses that was already happening across the country. With businesses being moved and launched online, tech experts are in more demand than ever.

“Amongst tech teams, there is high demand for specialists in cloud platform transformation, DevOps, cyber-security, data security, data analytics, and data visualisation for forecasting,” Gorton said.

  • FINANCE, BANKING, ACCOUNTING

Companies are looking for new revenue streams, “driving operational efficiencies” and creating business strategies, Gorton added.

Many finance and accounting skills across forecasting, budgeting, compliance and risk, and strategy planning are in high demand.”

Businesses of all sizes need accounting professionals, noted Tax Institute’s Scott Treatt.

“We hear feedback from accounting firms and organisations that it’s hard to find skilled professionals,” he said.

But fixing the skills shortage isn’t really about manpower, as accounting professionals need to keep up to date with new regulation and changing legislation.

“It’s not just about training more accountants, it’s also about ensuring those trained accountants are continually up-to-date on the latest information and skills,” he told Yahoo Finance.

Finances and economy concept.Close up hand of business woman accountant or banker making calculations.
Australia is in need of skilled accountants. (Source: Getty)

On top of that, accounting isn’t all about the numbers: soft skills are needed to do the job well. “A skilled accountant or tax practitioner needs: excellent analytical skills, research skills, great written and verbal communication skills,” he added. It’s a diverse and broad profession.”

  • OFFICE WORKERS, ADMIN, CUSTOMER SERVICE

Liveris sees the skills shortage as “particularly pronounced” in the hospitality, office administrative roles and consumer-facing roles.

“It is very hard to get a good receptionist at the moment,” he said. “What I am seeing is that staff that used to stay with organisations for a long time are now being poached by competitors for higher wages. There is a real war on good customer service.”

So how do we fix this?

As a nation, McEwan said, we’re relatively highly educated and skilled – but we’re going about it all wrong.

“There is an abundance of skills and talent right here in Australia, but we aren’t looking in the right places,” he said. “The pandemic has also shifted the demand for different industries and has left a lot of skilled people in its wake.

“Organisations can be smarter about looking for transferrable skills in people left unemployed during lockdowns and border closures.”

For instance, aviation workers like baggage handlers are “ready to go” with completed police checks, first aid certificates and security clearances. Meanwhile, bouncers who would normally be stationed outside nightclubs could go towards de-escalating behaviours in settings like hospital security to acting as additional police support, McEwan added.

“Now is a great opportunity to innovate, expand our thinking and wean ourselves off the addiction of importing talent to focus on the readily available workforce in our own backyard.

“But to do this, we will have to think beyond traditional employment models and quick fix solutions.”

Don’t confuse the two: Skills, not worker, shortage

Thinktank Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work director and economist Jim Stanford wants to make one thing clear: we’re not lacking in workers, per se.

Fresh unemployment figures reveal we still have 639,200 Australians out of a job, with the underemployment rate worsening from 7.9 per cent in June to 8.3 per cent in July.

“It’s impossible to say we are running out of workers, then there are 2.7 million Australians who could be put to productive work,” he told Yahoo Finance.

The Government’s occupation employment forecasts for new jobs over the next five years finds that there are only two ‘high tech’ occupations among the top 12 list.

Jobs of the Future – fastest-growing industries 2020-2025 table
(Source: Supplied)

“Again, it is not a shortage of workers that is the problem here – it is a shortage of good jobs, especially in the private sector,” he said.

“Employer complaints about labour shortages are almost always a prelude to two long-standing demands from the business community: to re-open low-cost temporary migrant labour flows from other countries, and to cut back income supports (like JobSeeker) so that more workers will feel compelled to accept the low-wage jobs they are offering. Those demands should be rebuffed.

“There are lots of Australians around to do the work. We just need employers to change their practices, so that workers can be valued like the ‘scarce’ commodity they supposedly are.”

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