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Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Page: 5054

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (18:04): I rise today to speak on the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012, which is set to replace Skills Australia with the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. Skills Australia currently provides the government with advice on Australia's workforce shortages and demands. The new Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency will assume most of the work being done by Skills Australia but will have an expanded mandate. This expanded mandate will mean that the new organisation will be responsible for the administration of the National Workforce Development Fund as well as provide the relevant minister with advice on how to improve productivity in the Australian workforce and where to allocate Commonwealth funding. The new organisation will also have access to a $20 million pool of funds that can be distributed to unions and employer groups, but at this stage the accountability regarding the distribution of these funds is unclear.

Although the primary task of both Skills Australia and its new successor is to provide evidence as to where shortfalls exist, these shortfalls are already being identified by industry and the department, as well as a variety of other stakeholders, so there appears to be some duplication in responsibility for the work undertaken by the agency and the department. What is further concerning is that Skills Australia and various industry skills councils should have been in a position to make determinations as to current and future skills needs but, because the AWPA has now been granted responsibility for this task, these changes only indicate that these organisations were not given the opportunity to do so.

This bill before the House increases the ever-expanding bureaucracy that the Labor government is creating. The bill also increases the number of board members that will sit on the AWPA to 10, including the chair—three up from the seven currently prescribed for Skills Australia. Whilst unions, employers and skills councils are represented on the board, there is minimal direct training expertise. I would see it as critical that there be a board member or members with significant direct training experience. Training is vital to the success of the next generation of Australia's workforce as well as to our current generations. Although representation by industry groups and union organisations provides an insight into the current demands of businesses as well as the interests of employees, it does not provide government with information on how we go about providing workers with the vital skills needed to get the work done and the processes and the measures that can be utilised to do so.

Considering the central role that training plays in developing and maintaining workforce productivity, I am surprised that there is no direct training representation on the board. This view is also supported by the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, which said in its submission to the Senate inquiry into the bill:

ACPET believes that it is appropriate that the training sector also be represented as part of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency membership. … Such an appointment would add valuable expertise to the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency as it develops advice for the government.

Nonetheless, the government has not seen fit to make such an appointment to date. However, I do hope that this will be rectified as a priority. There is also a possibility that the functions of the new organisation may in fact overlap with others. The New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, in its submission to the inquiry, said:

There may be value in avoiding the potential for duplication and overlap between the work of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency and other bodies that include the Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission is required by legislation to undertake on its own initiative research about matters relating to industry, industry development and productivity. Thus productivity achieved through workforce development could be seen to be part of the Productivity Commission's role.

Further, the Queensland Department of Education and Training, in its submission, states:

Having significant training delivery administered nationally risks duplication of training effort on the ground and potential misalignment of training with skills needs and industry requirements. Put simply, there is already evidence that the purchasing of training by states and state industry bodies, the Commonwealth and Commonwealth industry bodies is fragmenting skills investment.

There are two concerns here. Firstly, duplicating the work done by specifically designed organisations such as the Productivity Commission can only lead to poor productivity, wasted time and potentially much less action. Secondly, if there is already fragmentation of skills investment why doesn't the government address this issue rather than pressing forward with what amounts to merely window dressing?

The importance of training in the workforce cannot be expressed enough. Providing our workforce with the tools of the trade has a twofold benefit. The first is personal growth and higher skill training and the second is increasing productivity in the workplace. Training provides individual workers with the ability to supplement their skills and to grow professionally. It gives them the ability to complete their work in a more productive fashion as well as increasing their employability. Further, productivity is a major benefit that arises from training the workforce and it ultimately benefits business and the community as a whole. It is clearly essential that measures are taken to increase productivity across this country. By increasing the ease of access to training and the opportunities for training our workforce we can consequentially assist in increasing productivity in industry and therefore increase our wealth as a nation.

The VET sector, which contributes heavily to the training of our workforce, is a vital part of our national economy. I have spoken many times in this place about its importance to Australia and noted the significant contribution many institutions make in their local communities. On the Gold Coast alone there are over 160 registered training organisations providing training in a variety of forms—from hospitality courses to apprenticeships in construction related fields. These training organisations are vital to ensuring the health of the VET dependent industries which the Gold Coast has traditionally relied on. They include tourism, construction, manufacturing and, more recently, mining and resources.

The number of students in the Gold Coast VET sector rose by over 4,000 between 2006 and 2010, and that clearly demonstrates the health of this industry on the Gold Coast. However, we do need to make sure that the training that is being provided and that is being undertaken now is relevant to industry's future needs. There is no point in students undertaking training if there are likely to be limited or no job opportunities for them in their discipline in the future. So we have to be quite structured and quite focused about the training that we are developing and offering now to our students so that at the end of their training they do have a reasonable prospect of gaining employment in their chosen area.

Unemployment is an issue on the Gold Coast. Unemployment statistics for March 2012 show that the Gold Coast as a whole had a 6.7 per cent unemployment rate compared to 2.9 per cent in March 2008. The southern Gold Coast, where my electorate of McPherson is located, had a 6.7 per cent unemployment rate compared to its March 2008 rate of 2.8 per cent. Based on these numbers, unemployment on the Gold Coast under the Labor government has risen by 3.9 per cent, or 12,600 people.

But it is not only unemployment that needs to be addressed. We also need to address the issue of underemployment in Australia. In February 2011, out of the 11.4 million people employed 916,400 were identified as being underemployed, which is a representation of about eight per cent. There are many workers who are available to work additional hours. They may be additional part-time hours, casual hours or overtime hours. They would be accessing those hours but, at this point in time, there are no opportunities for them to pick up those additional hours and access that work. There are also women who would be employed on a part-time, casual or a full-time basis if there were opportunities available for them. But it also seems to be somewhat limited. That is a statistic that is not necessarily borne out by a lot of the ABS unemployment data at the moment because it represents the underemployment figure.

Many of Gold Coast locals are indicating to me that they believe that the underemployment rate could be as high as twice the unemployment rate I mentioned before. To address this issue we really need to strengthen the local economy on the southern Gold Coast and to provide businesses with incentives and opportunities to grow so that they in turn provide more opportunities for their existing employees and for potential employees.

Identifying these workforce shortages and areas in which productivity can be raised will help to ensure the strength of many industries and the national economy. But the risk of duplicating the functions of current agencies present some reasons for concern. Duplicating efforts will only lead to waste and they will not see any real results. Real action needs to be taken to reduce workforce skill shortages; real action needs to be taken in training not only today's workforce but also the workforce of tomorrow.