It’s been a tough few years to be running a business, that’s a fair understatement. COVID-19, fires, floods – Australian business owners have copped it all. But for the ones who have managed to survive it, along with the fragile green shoots, an urgent problem is emerging – where’s all the staff?

Right now, more than half of businesses looking to recruit are struggling to find workers, and it’s harder still in regional areas.

Yet at the same time, over two million Australians are jobless or in need of more work. So why are we seeing such a big gap between the businesses who have jobs on offer, and the people who desperately want them?

The simple answer is skills. You can’t grow a fully qualified chef overnight, or sparky, health care worker or I.T whizz. A few dodgy home haircuts during lockdown have served as a firm reminder to many of us that you don’t become a great hairdresser just by picking up a pair of scissors.

It takes training, and that’s what’s been missing in Australia lately.

We’re now in a situation where there are 85,000 fewer apprentices and trainees today than there were eight years ago.

That means less qualified workers ready to take up good paying jobs. In some cases like the health and aged care sector, where there just aren’t enough staff to go around, it can mean frightening outcomes for patients and their families.

Australia is a big island. COVID-19 has been a major wake-up call that we can’t just keep relying on tourists and migrants to fill the gap – we need to be more self-reliant.

If you take a $3 billion blowtorch to funding levels, which is what Scott Morrison’s Government has done since it came to power, you’re going to impact the number of people who are being trained.

Unfortunately the neglect inflicted will take years to overcome.

That’s why Labor is committed to growing Australia’s skilled workforce for a better future.

A Labor Government will introduce free TAFE for students in industries with skills shortages, so there are no barriers for anyone who want to train, or re-train, in an area where workers are in high demand. That includes the tech and advanced manufacturing jobs Australia will need for the future, the care economy and sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, like hospitality.

By incentivizing people to take up opportunities in those areas, businesses will have the pipeline of workers they need and customers have reliable access to services. The sad alternative is we wait longer, pay more, and in some regions, can’t access some services at all.

Training people now opens up decades of good, solid career opportunities and secure futures.

Labor has also committed funding to create state-of-the-art technology hubs like mining, tele-health and new energy simulators on TAFE campuses, along with guaranteeing funding levels for TAFE campuses so they can plan ahead for maintenance and big builds.

A new and independent agency called Jobs and Skills Australia, modelled off Infrastructure Australia, will research workforce trends and provide impartial advice about what skills are needed now and into the future.

Because identifying Australia’s shortfalls and weaknesses is the first step in fixing them.

We can’t keep trying our luck with piecemeal short-term measures, we need a government committed to fixing vocational education, delivering a pipeline with long-term planning.

By unlocking this country’s TAFE potential, we will unlock secure jobs for all Australians.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Monday, 6 December 2021.

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