Dr HAINES (Indi) (10:56): The Jobs and Skills Australia Bill 2022 will establish Jobs and Skills Australia, a statutory body which will advise and publish data on Australia’s current and emerging labour market and skills needs and priorities. With its sister bill, the Jobs and Skills Australia (National Skills Commissioner Repeal) Bill 2022, it will repeal the National Skills Commissioner Act, which performed similar functions when it was established in 2020, with a focus on the workforce outcomes and training courses from the vocational education and training system.

Jobs and Skills Australia will research workforce trends using data, evidence and analysis to provide impartial advice to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Minister for Skills and Training. The goal is for the government to better match investment in training and education with industry needs. As a former rural health researcher, I’m committed to ensuring that decisions made by government are based on data and evidence. It’s positive that this agency will be collecting data to inform decisions in this crucial area.

It’s absolutely crucial that we understand what data points we need to collect. The government is promising this agency will be dedicated to consultation, including with employers, unions, state and territory governments and the training and education sector, in developing outcomes. It’s crucial to do this because we need to ask the right questions to determine the data we need to answer those questions. We need to be able to analyse, to interpret, to find meaning, to adapt and to review again in order to find the answers we’re seeking. We need to include people with disability. We need to include people on the margins in thinking about how we ask the questions to find the jobs and skills answers we’re looking for. This is positive. Improving the number of quality jobs in Australia is vital to growing our economy, and it won’t happen without improving our skills and training in Australia.

This bill repeals the National Skills Commission, an agency that’s existed for less than two years. In fact, it’s just over two years since I stood in this place and spoke on that bill. The added challenges we face in regional and rural Australia, especially when it comes to vocational education and training, have only grown. Everywhere I go across my electorate of Indi, people speak to me about jobs and skills. Those constituents, those businesses and those organisations that employ them are facing enormous challenges. Across the board, in our large regional centres, in our bustling tourist hotspots, in small towns, employers are struggling to find staff. Job ads go unanswered or the staff available don’t have the required skills.

There are also notable times when employers find someone willing to take up a job, perhaps moving from Melbourne or Sydney or another regional town to make a tree change, but it’s simply impossible to find somewhere to live. This is happening again and again, whether it’s a brewery, whether it’s a school, whether it’s a medical practice, whether it’s a meatworks, whether it’s a logistics trucking company.

This is a very different challenge to that faced in many other areas of Australia. In Indi the unemployment rate is below the already historically low national unemployment rate. People are not talking to me about creating jobs; they’re talking to me about filling jobs, about how the lack of workers and housing for workers is dampening productivity.

It is forcing restaurants to leave tables empty due to a lack of staff and other businesses to knock back clients because they know they simply can’t fulfil orders. It’s my hope that this agency will take a holistic look at jobs and skills in this country and all of the drivers and barriers that come into this, especially in rural and regional Australia, where the issues we face are, indeed, quite different to those in the cities.

Unfortunately, though, I must say that this bill repeats a mistake from the initial National Skills Commission legislation from just two years ago which I will seek to rectify. I will move an amendment to the bill to include an additional function of JSA to provide specific advice to the minister and secretary in relation to skills, issues, training and workforce needs in rural, regional and remote Australia.

The barriers that constituents like mine face are different, as I’ve said, to those in metro centres. Likewise, our skills and training opportunities and workforce development needs are unique and require a dedicated focus. In reviewing this bill, I was concerned to see that this rural and regional focus was not carried across into the new body. I was also concerned that, while the explanatory memorandum said that the JSA will be required to consult and work genuinely with key stakeholders including regional organisations, regional organisations were not actually included as a key stakeholder in the bill. For too long regional Australia has been sidelined in the policy-making process as an afterthought or represented by a headline statement. This isn’t good enough. As a parliament, we need to show our constituents that they are not forgotten and that they’ll not be left behind as we prepare our workforce for the future.

I moved a similar amendment to the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 which was voted down by the former government, including the National Party, who claim to represent the interests of regional Australians. Imagine my surprise when the bill returned from the Senate with a near-identical coalition amendment which mirrored my amendment! This eventually became law, and I was very pleased to support it. I’ll always support good policy that backs regional Australia and my electorate of Indi irrespective of where it came from. However, I noted that the former government only supported regional Australia when the arithmetic was against them. So it was disappointing that they weren’t on the front foot with regional communities like mine, and I’m seeing this again which is why I seek to change it. This needs to change, and it needs to change now with this government. There are massive opportunities in regions like Indi that can be unlocked if we have the right data, information and advice to back robust bills, training and workforce development policies.

I’m very pleased to have had constructive discussions with the Minister for Skills and Training and his team about this amendment. I’m also very grateful for the involvement from the member for Kennedy, another longstanding representative of rural, regional and remote Australia. The town of Julia Creek in his electorate is classified as remote. They have a brand-new medical centre but they can’t get a GP, and this is simply terrible and, ultimately, unacceptable. I look forward to continuing to be a strong voice alongside the member for Kennedy to make sure our regional workforce is not forgotten.

While we have challenges in my rural and regional electorate of Indi, we also have some really terrific, innovative programs that are opening doors for our willing workforce, and the JSA would be very, very well placed to have a look at these programs. The Country Universities Centres in Wangaratta, Mansfield and Corryong provide opportunities for people to study courses at universities across the country while staying close to their rural home. These centres provide state-of-the-art study space, an informal area where students can gather and bond, including a student kitchen; space for tutorials; video conferencing; good, solid, effective internet. Students have access to campus-level technology, facilities, tutors, supportive administration, academic staff and, importantly, a network of fellow students. This opens up a whole world of higher education to people who previously needed to move far away from home or leave their employment or leave their families to access it.

The Girls of Steel program in Wangaratta provides women with a Certificate II in Engineering Pathways and a Certificate I in Work Skills. It aims to open up job pathways for women in engineering, a sector that is predominantly male. The course is project based, including the manufacturing of park furniture for councils, sculptures, trailers, signposts, bespoke letterboxes—you name it.

I’ve met with the program director, Brendan Ritchens, who exemplifies the very, very best in innovation and the very, very best in including people from the margins and the very, very best in ensuring that that enormous, great big, untapped workforce in skills such as engineering—women—are included.

I note with encouragement that the member for Fraser talked about the multiple jobs that people will be taking on in the future. When I was at the Jobs and Skills Summit last week we heard a lot about the skills needed for now and the skills needed for the near future. While I’m pleased that the government has increased the number of free TAFE places, we need to do a whole lot more in our TAFEs around ageing infrastructure. We simply can’t take on skills development in rural and regional TAFEs for these jobs of the future while we’ve got 1970s infrastructure. I was recently at GOTAFE in Wangaratta, speaking with Travis Heeney, and I’m often at the Wodonga TAFE, speaking with the CEO, Phil Paterson, and repeatedly I see ageing infrastructure. If we wish to train our rural and regional workforce for the huge transformation that renewables are going to be in rural and regional areas, we need to have the infrastructure in those TAFEs that can allow our students to work on batteries, to work on electric vehicles had to work on renewable technology more broadly.

I speak to employers who are dedicated to training and retaining their staff—bosses who take on apprentices and trainees, giving them a foot in the door to a lifelong career. I commend them. I speak to people every day who love their jobs and who are looking for opportunities to improve their skills and secure themselves a career pathway which will give them security and fulfilment. And they want to stay in the regions. I also speak to many young people who want to find a secure, well-paid job close to home in the country towns where they grew up. Students at our local university—La Trobe University in Wodonga—at CSU, at TAFE and on school campuses right across Indi are leading innovative programs, and I really encourage JSA to consult with these groups when establishing what their dataset should be.

Rural and regional Australia is ready for the workforce of the future if we put in the support that it needs. We have the energy, we have the commitment, we have the vision and we have the smart people; we do need the infrastructure and we do need to be included very, very carefully in the analysis of jobs and skills. I want to see this government step in and support the hardworking students, workers and employers to realise the incredible full potential of rural and regional Australia and truly build our economic prosperity.

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