Zali Steggall MP speaks in support of the Jobs and Skills Australia Bill 2022

7 September 2022

I rise to speak today in support of the Jobs and Skills Australia Bill 2022. The bill establishes Jobs and Skills Australia as a statutory body to provide independent advice on current, emerging and future workforce skills and training needs. This is important. We need to start planning better. It replaces the National Skills Commissioner. The key difference in scope of the organisation is the remit of Jobs and Skills Australia to undertake workforce planning and research future industries and opportunities. I support this bill because, as highlighted at the Jobs and Skills Summit, collaboration across all sectors and workforce planning are critical to addressing both the immediate labour market issues and skills shortages in some areas.

We know these shortages are both immediate and forecast for the future in the long term. They're both geographical and sectoral. In some areas we have high unemployment, and we have underemployment in others. We have a critical shortage of workers in certain industries in areas like Warringah. It's true in cities and regional centres alike. In my electorate of Warringah, businesses and chambers of commerce, especially in hospitality and retail, are crying out for workers, yet in other electorates such as Fowler, just on the other side of the city, there's over 10 per cent unemployment. Clearly there is a disconnect in how our employment services are working at the moment. We need to look at ways to bridge the barriers to relocation for work and the affordability of transport to better connect workers with where the jobs are available.

During the recent Jobs and Skills Summit, I would say government supported much talk around migration, and that was mostly the elements and actions that came away from it. But whilst I raised the question that we must first address housing and infrastructure there really was very little focus on that. We need long-term planning to plan for the long term and for a future workforce that addresses the key labour market challenges of decarbonisation and an ageing population, participation rates for women and First Nations people that must rise, digitisation of nearly all professions and the rise of AI. We need an agency that coordinates a system of education and training support for workers as they navigate a portfolio of jobs and careers throughout their working lives.

As a mother of teenagers and university students, I'm well aware that our current young people are being told they will have several careers—not just several jobs but several careers—in their working lifetime. We need to make sure the education system is actually preparing them for that. We know workers won't have a job for life. We cannot even imagine the jobs of the future, so we need to implement an adaptive and dynamic process to ensure Australia thrives, developing the skills required. We know two-thirds of Australia's top 50 economists have said that education and skills was a top issue that needed to be addressed at the Jobs and Skills Summit. I would have to say I was a little disappointed with my time there. I was there Thursday afternoon and Friday. There was very little discussion about education, in particular around the university sector and what was going to be done to support and increase its capacity to meet those skills and education needs.

We must develop research and development capabilities to capitalise on the opportunities in our industries. I raised, during the Jobs and Skills Summit, just how far Australia is falling behind when it comes to innovation and R&D. Research and development makes up only 1.8 per cent of Australia's GDP; in comparable nations in the OECD, it's some 2.5. We are falling behind, and we won't be competitive in the world of the future.

The government needs to set the guidelines for what our industries are and provide the necessary incentives for investment to congregate around those skills and research and development. Jobs and Skills Australia improves on the National Skills Commissioner in its remit to undertake research into and analysis of emerging and growing industries, such as the green economy and areas such as carbon sequestration, clean energy and green manufacturing. These are all huge opportunities, and at the Jobs and Skills Summit we heard discussion around the megatrends report as to global trends in terms of future skills. We need to start growing and training the workforce required to develop these industries, and—whilst I acknowledge that there are shortages now that need to be addressed, and I know the government is looking at those through a migration lens—we must also develop those skills locally. We must ensure education and opportunity exist here at home.

Obviously, there have been disruptions to skilled labour supply because of COVID and closed borders, and there's a disconnect between Australia's skills acquisition and training system, including through migration, and the needs of industry. And we know that disconnect is widening.

But the big issue I want to raise is women's workforce participation. We have also seen barriers to using our most skilled and trained labour force, which is women. And for too long it's been a side story—a story that, in this place, gets mentioned occasionally but never really focused on. We had the pink budget to try and remedy the blokes' budget under the last government. But, with an increased number of women in this place, I'm very, very focused on making sure that women's participation in the workforce is absolutely made a top economic priority of this government.

We know that it's fairly equitable for women in the workforce until they have children, and then the slide starts—then the discrepancies and the discrimination and disadvantage start, because women are required to bear that much heavier burden. There are so many structural barriers to women rejoining the workforce after childbirth. Paid parental leave needs to be increased, as do the incentives for partners to take up parental leave and share a greater proportion of caring duties. Child care needs to be made more affordable and accessible. And we know there are critical workforce shortages in those very sectors, creating even more barriers to that participation. We know there are workforce shortages prevalent across our highly-gendered care economy, so better understanding those needs of the childcare sector is incredibly important.

It was interesting that, at the Jobs and Skills Summit, while there was a nearly universal call for improving parental leave and childcare costs, it's the one area the government refused to actually move on when it came to an immediate action plan. From 1 January, child care should be made more affordable. There should be no delay in implementing those measures. And, knowing that there is a budget coming, I call on the Albanese government to act on making child care more affordable for women, to enable them to participate more in the workforce. Ensure that there is more than just talk: that there is action.

There are potential improvements to the bill. The legislative requirement for collaboration is good, but I wonder if this requirement should extend to the tertiary education sector. At the end of the day, we won't develop that skilled workforce without engaging with the education sector. Universities Australia highlighted in their submission to the inquiry that there could be a case for section 10(c) of this bill to be amended to explicitly include universities and the tertiary education sector as key stakeholders to be consulted—particularly given recent research by the National Skills Commission suggesting that nearly all new jobs will require a post-secondary qualification and lifelong learning. This addition would reflect the importance of lifelong learning but also Australia's commitment to upskilling its workforce, in conjunction with a skilled migration strategy, to address the current skill shortages. There needs to be that kind of long-term planning. Now, I know that the previous government really attacked the tertiary education sector, making changes that have made it incredibly difficult for young people to pursue those education goals, and I think these are some of the aspects that really need to be reviewed. So I do support this bill on the understanding of the need to enact an interim measure with detail on a permanent model to follow.

The collaboration and consultation between stakeholders is ultimately key, and we need to understand the mechanism for that and who will have a seat at the table, so I call on the government to acknowledge the call that the university and education sector have that seat at the table.

I welcome the start to a complex and critical issue. We need to look forward to seeing further detail on this, on the structure and composition of Jobs and Skills Australia, and I look forward to seeing the Albanese government move on important issues like parental leave and childcare support—increasing those. We need to remove the barriers to over 50 per cent of our population truly, fully participating in the workforce. As a professional woman, I find it incredible that in 2022 I am still having to push for that, that we still have to argue for that. I know that for many women on this crossbench and in this parliament this is not a topic that we are going to drop. Many women around Australia have said, 'Enough,' and it is time that we remove those barriers to participation.