The Guardian • Issue #2028

A big short: Australia’s manufactured skills shortage

Nurse working in the public ward, Women’s Hospital, Brisbane, 1934. Photo: Queensland State Archives – (Public domain)

The National Skills Commission has revealed in its 2022 Skills Priority List Key Finding Report, that 286 occupations were dealing with shortages at a national level, compared to 153 occupations in 2021. The list of the ten most in-demand jobs is particularly revealing.

In first place there is Registered Nurses. As was covered last year in Guardian “Nurses and midwives deserve better working conditions” #1982, workers all across the health sector worked under harrowing conditions, with next to no increase in wages, causing many people in those professions to leave. So, it comes as no surprise that aged and disabled care workers came in 3rd for in-demand jobs, and childcare workers came in 5th. The rest of the list is as follows: Software & Applications Programmers, Construction Managers, Motor Mechanics, Retail Managers, Chefs, ICT Business and Systems Analysts, Metal Fitters and Machinists. The eagle-eyed readers will have already noticed that this top ten in-demand job list is composed of many of the frontline workers in the care, retail, and services industries.

One of the proposed solutions for this shortage is making a change to the Temporary Skill Shortage (subclass 482) visa so that it covers more industries. However, the maximum amount of time this visa allows a person to stay in the country is four years. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging migration for work, it comes with two major benefits for employers to the detriment of employees. The first is that migrant workers are more vulnerable to labour exploitation including by being paid lower wages and subjected to dangerous working conditions, abuse, harassment and/or bullying. This is due to the fact that they may be unfamiliar with Australia’s (complex and unique) employment law system and their rights at work. The second is that, because of the short duration of the stay, it is a lot more difficult for workers to organise over the long term in their workplaces.

Another one of the proposed solutions that was unveiled last month at the Jobs and Skills Summit was the $1.1 billion agreement to fund an extra 180,000 fee-free TAFE places. In Victoria, Dan Andrews offered to pay the HECS debts of anyone wishing to study nursing or midwifery. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with making education more accessible and developing the skills of future workers, but what these solutions miss is that we already have workers trained for these jobs, there is already a skilled workforce ready to do the jobs now. The issue is not a shortage of people who are qualified, but a shortage of qualified people willing to work in the conditions offered in these industries. Training people in those industries takes years; a much more practical longer-term solution is to improve conditions in the education, healthcare, and care work sectors.

Like so many aspects of life under capitalism, the rhetoric of a skills “shortage,” is an entirely artificial and manufactured scarcity. We do not have a skills shortage in this country, what we have is a refusal for businesses to pay workers better wages. The reason workers left those industries was because of the atrocious working conditions they were subjected to during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are underpaid, overworked, and subjected to incessantly dangerous workplace environments. If the government and businesses were serious about addressing this “shortage,” then they’d be offering better wages, safer work environments, and better working conditions. The capitalist class cannot be relied on to bestow these benefits on workers. It is imperative that workers organise to fight and maintain better pay and conditions.

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