Monday, June 17, 2024

Time to address the shortage of ag mechanics

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Seems the old saying “all roads lead to the city” applies as much to country kids as it does to new migrants who have just arrived. Can you believe that Australia has imported 8.15 million people since 2000?

Anyone wandering around Australia’s country towns would struggle to find too many foreign workers other than short term visa backpackers and Pacific Island Scheme workers.

Why do Australian governments keep importing people if all they are going to do is see them clog up the capital cities, leading state governments to rack up billions in debt to attempt to fix their overcrowded infrastructure?

What’s the point of sharing Australia’s mineral and agricultural export earnings with people who show little interest in contributing to the farming and mining sectors that bring in the bulk of the foreign dollars?

A recent report by McKinsey Consulting found that 71 per cent of mining operations were failing to reach production targets due to skills shortages, and 86 per cent said it was harder to recruit and retain the talent they needed compared to two years ago.

We don’t need McKinsey to tell us about the shortage of ag mechanics in farming communities, along with all the skills needed in rural and regional Australia. In fact, if country people thought the worst of the skills shortage was behind them, think again; the big miners are yet again looking at poaching our workers to cover the fact they can’t attract or hold their own mechanics and operators.

Part of the problem is the hero-to-zero nature of mining; the miners don’t train enough during the quiet times to cover their boom times, and when commodity prices fall, they ditch their workers only to raid ours when the boom times return.

Another part of the problem is that too many of our kids have gone soft and don’t want to work outdoors or get dirty, not to mention the allure of the public service, which offers high pay and flexible work-from-home opportunities not to mention accelerated career paths for women.

The end result is lots of parents are pushing their kids toward going to university, helped along by the universities accepting any comers regardless of their ATAR score. All they can see is money for teaching dummies. The problem of too many university graduates vs trade-trained has been creeping up on us for decades.

If you look back to the UK in the 1860s, only 1 in 77,000 people went to university, think Oxford and Cambridge in their glory days. By the 1930s, our Greatest Generation could count 1 in 20 as tertiary-educated, with teachers and nurses being the most common. Moving on to the Silent Generation, the numbers increased to 1 in 10, Baby Boomers 1 in 5, Generation X 1 in 4, Millennials 1 in 3, and now Generation Z, at 43 per cent going to university, it’s almost 1 in 2.

Which means every kid, including the village idiot, is up for a university degree. It makes spending $32,000 to send your kids to Scotch to get a good education to help them get into university a highly questionable investment.

This means we are losing the smart, hands-on high school kids who would have done a trade and made a brilliant electrical technician building things and now seek to sit behind a desk working for the Department of the Environment stopping things being built.

This push to have every second kid go to university, along with migrants who don’t want to go bush, is compounding our regional skills shortage.

Our regional workshops need smart kids to take up apprenticeships because the complexity of our machinery needs more than the kid that failed maths and English at school.

Many regional employers are scrambling around looking for someone, anyone, to take up an apprenticeship that involves waving tools around a workshop.

Even with free TAFE courses and employers being able to pick up up to $7000 a year per trainee, it’s hard to find starters and even harder to keep them, even when you can point to jobs as welders and mechanics not on the mines that pay $150,000.

The National Skills Commission report has found that 45 per cent of employers struggle to fill apprenticeship positions and even then 53 per cent of starters fail to complete their qualification. Australian kids just don’t want to get their hands dirty, while the skilled migrant workforce who are trade-qualified prefer the big cities to the bush.

What’s the solution? I suggest four pathways forward:

  1. Double subsidies for employers in hard-hit skills shortage agricultural regions willing to take on apprentices. To fund it, the government can quarantine a portion of the rivers of royalties the miners generate.
  2. Force the universities to charge full cost recovery for useless degrees that have poor employment track records, like media studies, which would send a signal to the students and universities to think again about dead-end degrees that lead nowhere.
  3. Establish a regional visa that offers fast track residency to anyone who comes with trade qualifications willing to work in the regions for three years and market it globally.
  4. Establish a fast pre-apprenticeship that will churn out near-qualified technicians in one year and not four.

Each of these will help, but I hold little hope for the first three as governments just don’t want to rock the boat with the miners, universities or migrants.

But I do see a role for Muresk or a similar facility in Perth to offer an intensive training facility that offers year-long residential pre-apprenticeship courses that crash through all the classroom theory and bench-based training needed to diagnose and fix anything to do with ag tech and modern farm and mining machinery. This can be funded by a combination of student and government funds.

Muresk needs a purpose or it’s dead in the water. In fact it has long been talked about as an ag tech training facility and the state government has recently spent $9m building new training workshops there. But building the training rooms was the easy part; attracting the trainers and the students has proved to be far harder.

A recently announced review into Muresk’s future will no doubt consider all this, including if it can play a role in addressing the state’s skills shortage for at least ag and mining technicians.   

Either way something has to change.  Maybe the Nationals can put forwards some policy ideas for the upcoming state election as the skills shortage is in their backyard. At the very least they are welcome to copy mine.

As for the migrants, maybe it’s time for the Liberals to be brave and run with a policy to turn off the tap at the next federal election. If migrants are not prepared to come to the bush, why would we want to share the wealth of the nation with another 8 million people swelling our already overcrowded cities?

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