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Rural and regional work force policy: the Queensland scene

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Rural and regional work force policy: the Queensland scene

18 September 2019

Authors: Hurriyet Babacan, Allan Dale & Jennifer McHugh (JCU/The Cairns Institute)

Published: September 10, 2019

Executive Summary


Queensland’s rural economies have undergone significant structural change and adjustment in the last three decades. A number of factors have driven these major structural shifts, including increasing and rapid exposure to global markets, poor terms of trade and fluctuations in financial markets, technological change, environmental concerns and changing consumer demands. Economies going through transition often also experience the reallocation of the key components of production such as land, labour and capital. These changes, in turn, alter where and how businesses are conducted. Queensland rural economies also have distinct characteristics and diverse strengths and needs. The economies of rural Queensland have a large proportion of small businesses, a lower ratio of educational qualifications, a lower ratio of professional occupations, ageing populations, a lower ratio of digital literacy and slower technology up-take. Increasingly, there is emphasis in the regions in shifting to enhanced competitiveness and productivity.

Labour and skills shortages in rural communities can strongly impinge on their competitiveness, adaptive capacity and resilience in the face of change. In 2018, employers in rural and regional Queensland had the most difficulty in the hiring of Technicians and Trades Workers (65%), Professionals (64%) and Machinery Operators and Drivers (55%). Employer surveys and vacancy data reveal that for every advertised position, employers in rural Queensland had less number of candidates, less suitable applicants and significant difficulty in recruitment compared to their metropolitan counterparts. Industries such as Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (60%); Manufacturing (47%); Construction (48%); and Health Care and Social Assistance (48%) also had a large proportion of employers who experienced difficulty with recruiting. The agricultural sector had significant workforce shortages around harvest times but also in processing (e.g. meat industry), with rural industry peak bodies identifying significant workforce shortages across different occupational levels.

Significant workforce disruptions and change to industries are also anticipated in the near future due to new technologies, (automation and artificial intelligence), global competition for workers, ageing population, shift towards service industries and improved productivity gains. Advancements in technology in industry will be posing challenges to existing business models and practices, including workforce practices. Change is expected in the work tasks and locations to being undertaken, redefining the concept of work. New growth industries will require higher level of qualifications and skills. Given the lower ratio of educational qualifications in rural Queensland, retraining and reskilling are major considerations for future workforce scenarios.

Consultations with key stakeholders across rural Queensland identified a range of issues and concerns relating to workforce shortages, difficulties of attracting and retaining workforce in rural areas, barriers to vocational education and training, higher education and school transitions to work. Barriers to career pathways for rural industries via school, education and small employers were also identified. Problems were also noted with employer and industry recruitment processes in areas such as retention, and management of the workforce. Growth of industries such as the social services sector were identified but also experienced major recruitment difficulties with appropriately qualified staff. Given the ageing demographics, alternative sources of workforce need consideration, including the retention of older workers in the workforce, women, international migrants and under-employed youth. This will need nuanced policy strategies to attract, train and retain in the workforce.

Primarily, the consultations and the literature identified the need for place based integrated approaches to workforce development. Policy processes were identified as needing to provide a facilitative environment; one that was flexible, tailored to local needs and co-ordinated across the three tiers of government and other regional bodies. What emerges from our consultation is a strong sense of policy fragmentation, duplication and a lack of coherence. There is also a lack of evidence about the localised needs of industry in each region and sector, and our evidence base was broad-based, drew on aggregated sectoral or state-wide trends.

Overall, we find that workforce issues in rural Queensland pose a complex societal problem, with significant strategic policy and program implications. Four key policy focus areas for action emerge, including regional workforce and skills shortages; workforce education and training; disruption and new workforce models for transitioning economies; and policy and program coordination. Vibrant and prosperous regional communities rely on industries that can meet their workforce needs and citizens that can find and retain employment and remain in the regions. It is argued that “that all places can grow when policymaking is attuned to spatial particularities” (Pugalis & Gray 2016:181). The challenge for policymakers is how to ensure that workforce needs are identified at the local level and those policy innovations in education and training, workforce supply and workforce planning can meet the needs of rural Queensland industries and communities.



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