The government’s jobs and skills summit must tackle the labour shortage

The challenge the Australian government’s jobs and skills summit must address is clear. We have an economy approaching full capacity with a lack of workers now a critical issue. Nine in 10 companies surveyed by NAB say the worker shortage is holding them back. A third of them are desperate to fill empty roles.

While inflation and cost of living pressures are having a real impact on many Australians, the single biggest hurdle to growth is labour shortage. It’s all about getting more people in jobs.

As Australia’s biggest business bank and one of the country’s biggest employers, we have a strong interest in seeing the jobs and skills summit succeed. The summit is an important initiative bringing together government, unions and businesses to find tangible actions that can be implemented quickly.

NAB chief executive Ross McEwan.

Our customers and colleagues tell us that three areas need to be addressed.

The first is skills and labour. Australian business and institutions must identify the skills and labour needed in the future. Then we must plan how to get them. Our education curriculums need modernising. This is the only way we will keep up in the technology fields.

NAB is working hard to develop talent through our technology internships and training. But we still can’t fill roles – in fact, we have about 800 technology and operations roles vacant right now. And our brand for recruiting is a good one. This is an issue that needs so much more than business-led training.

The renewable energy sector is another area that requires us to equip Australians with new skills.
This will help us achieve net zero emissions and make the most of environmental and economic opportunities. We can also do more to expand employment opportunities to give every Australian a
chance, particularly the most disadvantaged. University places and career opportunities for Indigenous Australians should be demand-driven not subject to caps.

Over and above addressing how we educate and train people, we need to make it easier for skilled and unskilled migrants to come here. We welcome the government’s efforts to clear backlogs for priority skilled areas, and all visa applications need to be processed faster. We need to counter fears around border closures and signal Australia is open for business. When I was in Europe and the US last month, some of the people I spoke to weren’t sure whether we were truly back to “normal” again, with open borders and relaxed restrictions. Longer term we need quicker and easier pathways to permanency.

The second focus area is productivity and wage growth. Productivity improvements are the only way to achieve sustainable wage rises. We could do this by removing unnecessary regulation and make it easier to run a business. Many small business owners have told NAB they have to spend 12 hours every week on government administration. Let’s cut red tape and give them hours back to grow their business and invest in their people.

The awards system is complex and time-consuming for small business. A small business, such as an independent supermarket, may be paying staff a total of 126 different rates of pay. That makes it too easy to get wrong. There must be a better way.

We must make enterprise bargaining simpler and more efficient so that business productivity gains can translate to real wages growth. To address complexity in our own business, NAB is in discussions with our colleagues and the union as we work to simplify our enterprise award and make it easier to understand and pay our colleagues fairly.

The third essential issue for economic growth is equal opportunity for women. We need to transform paid parental leave in support of a shared responsibility approach between men and women. We need to provide all parents with the same access to parenting leave entitlements, including primary, secondary, adoption, foster and kinship carers. NAB has adopted this approach because it reflects the diverse needs and ensures families can manage their lives and their work. We should also support government policies to subsidise and improve access to childcare. Cheaper childcare removes financial disincentives to return to work.

This national conversation on jobs is timely and what Australia needs right now is actions to address the situation. To maintain strong growth and a competitive edge, we need nationwide leadership. This summit can produce fast and co-ordinated action, the kind that we saw during the
pandemic. Business, government and unions must – and can – unite to keep the economy firing.

Ross McEwan is NAB Group chief executive officer.

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