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Standing Committee on Regional Australia
Fly-in fly-out work practices

CORNISH, Mrs Michelle, Group Manager, State and Regional Services Strategy, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

ROBERTSON, Mr Craig, Division Head, Tertiary, Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

WOOD, Ms Joanne, Group Manager, Indigenous Economic Strategy Group, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations


CHAIR: I now welcome the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. As is the problem in this place from time to time, we are told that there is going to be a division fairly shortly and it could go on and on. If we are disrupted, depending on how far we get into our deliberations, we might have to ask you to come back at a future date or at least write to you. We apologise for that, but I am sure you understand. There are a couple of formal things that have to go through. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. Thank you for your submission and thank you for taking the time to be here today. Would you like to make some brief introductory remarks? Then there will be some questions from the committee.

Mr C Robertson : Chair and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to come and talk about the submission that is before you today. Just by way of a quick introduction, this submission from Minister Evans was at the time when he had responsibility for tertiary education, skills, jobs and workplace relations. Of course, with ministerial changes, tertiary education, where skills have an impact on FIFO and drive-in drive-out arrangements, I pick up those skills-tertiary education related matters. Matters that relate to employment and employment services, particularly Indigenous employment opportunities rest inside DEEWR. Depending on the questions that you have, we will handle them accordingly. Essentially, we are ready to answer any questions you have.

CHAIR: Would you like to make some brief comments on submissions?

Ms Wood : I think we can just talk briefly about what elements of the submission we cover. In the employment portfolio, obviously it is the employment services, both Job Services Australia and Disability Employment Services, which assist in skilling people for a range of employment opportunities. That could include fly-in fly-out; arrangements around priority employment areas; local employment coordinators and regional education skills and jobs coordinators; and, specifically around Indigenous employment, the Indigenous Employment Program and the work that we do with the Minerals Council of Australia and mining companies around Indigenous employment in mining in particular. We are happy to jointly take questions on any of those issues.

CHAIR: Does anybody have any questions? I have got one. We are going to Cairns in a few weeks time and I noticed in your submission there is mention of a new FIFO coordinator being placed in Cairns. Can you just give us a brief explanation about what you are hoping to achieve through those coordinators, their actual role and what it could mean in terms of our deliberations?

Mr C Robertson : The catalyst for the Cairns FIFO in particular came out of the Resources Sector Employment Taskforce inquiry that was headed up by Gary Gray at the point when he was Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia. That was set up to look at what some strategies are that we could use to increase employment participation and that could respond to the emerging labour market needs for the growing resourcing sector. One of the recommendations out of that report was to look at the capacity of putting fly-in fly-out coordinators on the ground in particular areas.

The recommendation was that we would start off in Cairns because Cairns had a particular interest at that particular point in time. Minister Evans announced that there will be four other FIFOs and coordinators, and the government is still considering the location of those four in conjunction with the industry players. The coordinator in Cairns was appointed in November. Essentially it is just getting on the ground at the moment. That is a joint arrangement between SkillsDMC, which is an industry skills council that operates within the vocational education and training area that facilitates skills standards and training for their particular industry sector, and Advance Cairns, which is a local consortium of employers and business people. The idea there is to get somebody on the ground to look at the issues that relate to things like is there the employment resource base within Cairns. If it is going to be fly-in fly-out or drive-in drive-out, what are the resource requirements, particularly airport capacity etcetera etcetera. The other big one, which is still a big one, is whether there a skills gap between what the mine sites need versus what is available in Cairns. This is why SkillsDMC is a key player in it. What is the gap training or up-skilling that could be done that can facilitate employment take-up from Cairns into the various sites that are available to them.

At this point in time, as you can imagine, there are just getting on the ground, making their connections and the like. There is local governance arrangement over the top of that, so they will look at that. We are expecting that we will start to get some reports from them about May, June in terms of the activities they have been undertaking and some of the strategies that they are proposing to put in place.

CHAIR: And that has directly come out of that Gary Gray inquiry?

Mr C Robertson : Yes, that is right..

CHAIR: We might try, if we have not already, to get a copy of that.

Mr C Robertson : Yes. Our submission provides a link to it. It is there.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: The unemployment in Cairns is 10 per cent-plus. Is that correct?

Mr C Robertson : At the time the report was done, it was quite high. I am not sure what the current rate is, but we do know it is coming down.

Ms Wood : I do not think we have that data.

Mr C Robertson : We do not have that data. We could get it.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: It is usually the case, is it not, in the high unemployment areas that they are very interested in the issue of the skills gap because it tends to be the issue that is there. This coordinator is going to identify those sorts of issues and ways ahead in terms of making sure there is available training or making recommendations?

Mr C Robertson : That is right. As I mentioned, they are operating in conjunction with SkillsDMC, which has a particular role in relation to skilling strategies. Of course, we have a close relationship with SkillsDMC because we fund them as a body. Once we start getting some of that feedback, that is when we have got to start working with particularly the Queensland government to say, 'What are the appropriate skilling strategies that we can put in place?' Noting that already, Queensland is doing a fair bit in that area. Also, there are other training programs that are available that can help to do that. Essentially, their first stage is a bit of a gap analysis and then we will look at what the training effort can be to help in that area.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Does that identify particular groups, like Indigenous groups, where there are higher proportions of those in Cairns?

Mr C Robertson : Yes, to the extent that the coordinator connects right across the community, which is one of the expectations, they will identify those skills.

Ms Wood : Because of the high unemployment in Cairns, the Cairns region is one of the priority employment areas which were identified in response to the global recession—particular areas that had high levels, and particularly increasing levels, of unemployment and where there were more disadvantaged socioeconomically, so you did have a bigger group of unemployed people who had lower level skills. Through our portfolio they also have a local employment coordinator based in Cairns. That local employment coordinator has a broader role across all industries and works across a range of employers, working closely with the FIFO coordinator around the opportunities for fly-in fly-out for mining, but also working more broadly with a range of employment service providers and training organisations in that region to ensure that we are getting good match between the work preparation, the basic pre-employment preparation, as well as the high level training to connect people with the opportunities that are in that region.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: How do we measure the success of that? What things are in place? The idea is a good idea. My electorate is one of those areas as well but, like Cairns, unemployment has been rising. Anecdotally, speaking to employers, local kids often do not have the skills they require and there still seems to be a gap in connecting them there. How are we measuring the success of these programs so that we can adapt and change them, and make sure that they really do fill that gap?

Ms Wood : With the local employment coordinators we contract that service. I not have the details here, but we can provide to the committee how we measure for that particular contract—the key performance indicators in terms of what we need to achieve. More broadly, that point about the bigger picture—'do we think this intervention is having the impact we want it to have?'—is hard to know. You do not have a control to say, 'If we did not do this in Cairns, where would our unemployment rate be?' That requires a bigger picture look at the dynamics around the economic situation there and a look at this model across different kinds of economies; that is, are we seeing an improvement at that high level employment and unemployment. Some of it has to go to perceptions of stakeholders—employers, training providers and others—and whether they are seeing people come through: getting candidates from employment services that have the skills and getting a good match. There is the basic contract level—what have we contracted to be delivered and are we seeing it delivered?—and then we have to make an assessment across this measure that it is having a bigger impact. That is more an evaluation question than a contract management question.

Mrs Cornish : As part of the 2011-12 budget we have the initiative for the regional education skills and jobs coordinators. We have six coordinators in Queensland, which includes Cairns. Their plans will be published by 30 June. There are living documents. I have some examples. That is still a work in progress. We have finalised the recruitment process. We now have the 34 RESJ coordinators deployed across Australia, covering 46 non-metropolitan RDA areas. I have a Victorian—not Queensland—example. Our RESJ coordinator in the Gippsland RDA area has worked with local stakeholders to establish workplace training and language, literacy and numeracy for 25 local indigenous apprentices and jobseekers. The RESJs are working with many different stakeholders in that region. They are developing the regional plan, which will not only take into account the skills gaps for that region but also look at early childhood development, Year 12 attainment and the local job opportunities. They cover the whole raft.

Ms LIVERMORE: From what you are saying, I take it that the job of the FIFO coordinator is to scope out the opportunities and challenges in terms of job seekers in Cairns obtaining FIFO positions in mine sites. Is someone playing that brokerage role or liaising with mining companies—the potential employers—to say, 'Here's what we are doing and here's a potential pool of employees that you should be aware of.'

Mr C Robertson : I should have clarified there. They are doing that with the mining sector as well. They will do that through SkillsDMC, which has those connections, as well as members of the governing committee, our employers and the mining sector.

Mr MITCHELL: I would like to get some more information on the enterprise migration agreement. What sort of level of workforce are you expecting not to be filled locally?

Mr C Robertson : We have some very broad knowledge of those agreements. But the real technical detail and understanding rests with Immigration. Whether we take that on notice and refer them back to this committee is probably the best way to go, apart from saying that the strategy for the government overall in the skilling space is to make sure that we have a broad set of skills delivery so that we provide the maximum opportunity for Australian citizens. Those are the broad parameters around those agreements.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: I think it is the integration of the two as to where they come about. That would be of interest as well.

Mr C Robertson : To a certain extent the Cairns FIFO coordinator is a test case about how we can make this work. We can talk to them about what the migration agreements are that are floating around. And we have contacts with DIAC, so we can pursue that.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: It may well be the case that without proper government programs it is easier to bring someone in from outside rather than train. Therefore, the question of resources for those sorts of growing the skills programs is front and centre in that sort of issue.

Mr C Robertson : Yes.

CHAIR: This issue that Mr Thomson has raised is a very real issue, particularly in areas that are not traditional mining areas that mining activity is moving into, where there are quite large towns and smaller communities that do not necessarily have the skills that the mining sector actually wants. Different companies are adopting different attitudes. Some are trying to upskill locals. Others want the skills off the plate. So fly-in fly-out, drive-in drive-out becomes a preferred option. But I am sure that as we get around, particularly on the eastern seaboard, we will see more and more communities saying, 'We welcome the initiative for mining activity et cetera, but we thought it was going to have a greater impact on our local economies and our local people.' Are there any initiatives, particularly in relation to Indigenous people, or any good results out there in other parts of the community that we can learn from for the eastern seaboard? But it is not only Indigenous people. Communities feel as though they do not have the skills and because they do not have the skills they do not get a start. So someone flies in and takes the job.

Ms Wood : I can talk a little bit about some of the models that are emerging around Indigenous employment. There are a couple of tiers to it. It is where there are some projects that are focussing on skilling up Indigenous people to access fly-in fly-out opportunities where the fly-in fly-out arrangements are well established. There are others that go to that point about skilling-up local Indigenous people where fly-in fly-out has been the main kind of strategy for attracting the work force but this is actually bringing in Indigenous people as part of the local work force. There are other ones that are particularly interesting. Some of these are well established, but there are a number that are new, as different employers are testing different models.

There is quite a good program emerging which is called Pathways in the Pilbara. It is based on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales and is starting small, connecting thirty Indigenous job seekers with fly-in fly-out opportunities in the Pilbara. It is specifically about addressing the skills gap—so some basic accredited training around first aid, heavy vehicle licenses and those kind of things—but it is also those broader soft skills around just being ready for work, communicating in the workplace, time management—a whole range of things—as well as preparation for what it is actually like to work on a fly-in fly-out basis and the support for workers and families around that. That is a 12-month pilot to November this year, and we have seen so far ten employment and training placements under that, which is a good initial result. It really is testing a model to see how well that works connecting unemployed Indigenous job seekers on the eastern seaboard with those opportunities in WA, but if it is a sustainable model it becomes a way to connect people with other areas of mining activity. We have seen quite a good project developed around Cloncurry, and this is the other side of the coin. It is looking at a mining employer who has previously relied on a fly-in fly-out workforce bringing in a local Indigenous workforce. That is focused on training up people around a range of grader, excavator, back hoe, forklift and heavy vehicle skills.

CHAIR: Why are they doing that? Is there pressure from the local community—'what about us'? If historically they have been based on fly-in fly-out, why are they making a change? Is it job retention?

Ms Wood : That is a really good question. We can get some more information on this project and what sparked it. Where fly-in fly-out is well established, it is a question of why are you changing strategy. Certainly we are keen to see and are pushing our providers to build connections with employers to bring local people in. But we could get a bit more background on exactly what sort of change shifted that.

CHAIR: That might be an interesting case study, because it is the reverse of what is happening in other areas. I am not saying it does not happen in other areas, but it would be interesting to see what is driving that. Is it the company saying, 'If we have local people, they are more like to stay longer,' or are there community pressures?

Ms Wood : The other one that I think is worth mentioning and has a bit more of a track record because it has been running for a couple of years is looking at fly-in fly-out from regional areas in Western Australia from Geraldton to Rio Tinto sites in the Pilbara. We are running that through Wila Gutharra, which is an Indigenous organisation. Again it is about the training and life skills and the work preparation; that basic kind of preparation which the government program is supporting to assist people to access the fly-in fly-out route into the Pilbara. We have seen over 300 training and employment placements for Indigenous people through that program. I do not have breakdowns, but they are focusing on connecting women into some of those opportunities and young people as well. That is looking at the basic skills and having people ready. Once they are ready, the opportunities in WA clearly are there. That one has a bit more of a track record: it has been running for nearly three years.

Mr CROOK: Geraldton to the Pilbara seems a bit more sensible, too, than making families just function from the east coast, which is part of what we are looking at.

Ms LIVERMORE: On the first page of your submission you talk about the data that you are able to get from the ABS and say that you would like to be able to get more detailed and meaningful data, and you talk about working with the ABS on how to do that. How are you achieving that with the ABS? Also, from your point of view, what is missing in the data? What do you need in the data to help inform what you are doing as a department in your programs?

Mr C Robertson : I will tackle that generally and then come to some specifics. What the ABS does for each household census is that it runs a program across government about what should be in the data to be collected in each household census. Of course, the 2011 census was completed some time back because of their lead times. Although I do not know the specifics of what has been recorded, it will not go down to the extent of saying: 'They are doing this because it's the only mechanism they've got to work in the mining sector'. It is more a general thing saying, 'Here's my place of residence, but I actually work over here and it could be for a whole range of reasons'. The capacity to then say in a census that we want to know what is attributable specifically to fly-in fly-out for particular industry sectors is about going to the ABS in time for the 2016 population census and putting it in the list of priorities to get data on that. Of course, you would be competing with a whole pile of other areas to be able to get that data.

What they can do, however—which to my understanding has not been pursued—is do some survey work, which is what they tend to do in between time. That could be a possibility, but of course the ABS would then say that that needs to be funded and the like. So that is where they would go.

Ms LIVERMORE: There has been a lot of emphasis, quite naturally, in your submission about linking up people with jobs in the mining sector, but the other side of the equation—there are two parts to the other side of the equation, one is the loss of trained employees in a lot of cases from other sectors of the economy and whether we are tracking that or there are any strategies in place about how to support employers or pick up the slack somehow to fill those vacancies created by people leaving for the mining industry. The other part of that is what is actually happening on the ground in the mining towns where, because they are becoming more heavily populated by temporary fly-in fly-out workers, it is just getting harder and harder to get people living there to work in the bakery, deliver the mail, work at the local servo or whatever. Do you have any means in the programs that you are running, in the data that you collect from Job Services Australia or whatever of measuring that, tracking that, working out what is going on on that side of the equation?

Mr C Robertson : There are a couple of things to start off with. You are talking about, in the first instance, whether there are some government programs that help firms who are impacted by their workers heading off.

Ms LIVERMORE: Are they on anyone's radar, basically?

Mr C Robertson : Yes, they certainly are, because out of the last year's budget, under the initiative called Backing Australia's Future Workforce, there is a twofold strategy that is underway. One is that an agency which is called Skills Australia is being morphed into the National Workforce Development and Productivity Agency, to commence from 1 July this year. Minister Evans has announced an interim board for that agency, and they are meeting now. They are specifically to provide advice to government around the skilling strategies and employment strategies we need that not only meet the needs of the resources sector but what I call the downstream impacts, whether that is regionally focused or within particular industry sectors.

The other element—I said it was twofold—is the government has also announced the National Workforce Development Fund which is roughly $558 million available over this financial year and into the forward estimates. That is funding for training that will be made available to businesses based on the priorities and advice provided by the agency for where firms should be helped with training to help them adjust. At the moment we are out in the field with some training money, based on the advice from the interim board, and it is interesting that they have come forward and said, 'Okay, we want you to focus on some training priorities for the mining industry, but also to take account of the downstream effects.' In other words, you can provide training for those firms that are impacted. At the moment we are out asking for applications around that, so we will start getting a bit of evidence around where we are seeing some of those impacts. Of course, that will not present a full picture, because it will be based upon who has come forward seeking applications and the like. But it will start to create a bit of a picture around that. The other element that is important in all of that is that the government has a strategy to make sure that we skill as many people in the workforce as possible, so they have at least a base level of skills and they are ready to jump off into opportunities, whether that is in fly-in fly-out or whether it is local jobs. The important thing is that we build the skills base of the broader workforce so they can take up that range of opportunities that will come up.

Ms LIVERMORE: Alongside that, is anyone monitoring those other barriers to people being able to fill those positions so that people have got the skills in a lot of cases, but you cannot afford to live in towns where those jobs are available? I am not saying that it is your department's job to fix that, but are you aware of whether anyone is measuring or monitoring where those other broader barriers might be to bridging the gap between people who could be filling some of these positions and the ability to actually make that happen?

Mr Robertson : That is the rationale behind the RESJs, the LECs and the fly-in, fly-out coordinator to get that on the ground information. The trick is going to be for us to synthesise that together to say: what are some of the systemic barriers that need to be looked at? Of course, it may well be barriers that are outside the responsibility of our two departments, but nevertheless they can be raised.

Ms Wood : And I think, through the connecting people with jobs initiative, which is the mobility initiative connected to the employment services streams, there is some financial support available for the costs of relocating, if people are moving to those regions. But understanding the actual extremely high costs of—

Ms LIVERMORE: $3,000 a week to rent a house in Moranbah.

Ms Wood : Yes, that is right.


Mr HAASE: The relocation allowance: is that your bivouac?

Ms Wood : Yes.

Mr HAASE: Is it proving to be sufficiently substantial to justify members of a family in a metropolitan area moving remotely and leaving the family? Is it encouraging people? What sort of success rate do you have?

Ms Wood : I can talk a little bit about that. It is important to have the context that this particular issue comes on top of a range of others that have been tried over a long period of time where generally we have had low take up of mobility related initiatives. They have tended to be targeted at people that are unemployed. and it is clearly more challenging for people with lower skills or less work experience to relocate than someone that is highly skilled and probably had a bit of work mobility already. Since 1 January last year to the 1 February this year, we have seen 306 job seekers relocate for jobs drawing on that initiative. So that is a small number compared to the overall capacity within that program, which is up to 4,000, but it is probably—

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Do we know whether they would have been doing it anyway or whether they were taking advantage of it, or was this what caused them to move?

Ms Wood : I cannot answer that right now. We could ask that—

Mr HAASE: Perhaps we can extract the answer in another way: were these people previously unemployed?

Ms Wood : Yes. These were all people who were previously unemployed.

Mr HAASE: One has to be unemployed to take advantage of that?

Ms Wood : Yes, that is right. This is connected to their Job Services Australia and Disability Employment Service. That is part of the eligibility for people who are on income support, unemployed and being supported by an employment service provider.

Mr HAASE: Do you have any data in relation to the permanence aspect? How long are these people staying in their jobs?

Ms Wood : I do not have that with me, but we could look to see if we have that data.

Mr HAASE: It is very important if it is only a matter of weeks. What penalties are involved? Is there a requirement that they stay in that new position for a minimum period of time without having the support removed?

Ms Wood : I am not sure what the minimum period of time is, but we can get that for you as well. Certainly if they left a job, they will suffer the same penalties. They will not be able to go back onto income support easily and all those things.

CHAIR: So the capacity of the program is 4,000 did you say, and there are 300 taking that up?

Ms Wood : Yes.

Mr HAASE: Just for the record—and I wonder if the department is conscious of it—I have a number of experiences out of the Pilbara area where local residents, the majority of them previously untrained, unemployed, indigenous, assisted with government schemes to find employment, get training, get a job with the major companies involved and were then offered FIFO situations and moved to Perth, which tends to fly in the face of what we are trying to achieve. It happens too often. Some divisions of some of the major companies of course provide only FIFO employment. If you are living locally and join that particular branch of the organisation you immediately have to fly-in, fly-out.

Mr CROOK: It is almost a condition of employment there.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. There will be a copy of Hansard sent to you. If there are any corrections, please let us know, and a number of things were mentioned that you might follow up in terms of some of the data issues.

Committee adjourned at 11 : 05