There has been a reoccurring theme when it comes to regional Australia throughout 2023 – that it’s on the precipice of a monumental change. Whilst the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has always been a firm believer in the starring role the regions can play in our national story through regionalisation, this year it feels as if the rest of the country has started to endorse that same narrative.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen regional jobs numbers continue to grow. Apart from the expected seasonal summer drop at the start of the year, vacancies have been around 90,000 or more, each month. In comparison, metropolitan vacancies are down nearly 11%.
At the same time, the lure of a life in the regions is far from waning, with the latest data showing capital to regional migration levels are nearly 12% above the pre-COVID average.
The Federal Government’s Intergenerational Report prominently called out regional Australia and the role it will play in driving the future economic prosperity of the nation, namely through the transition to net zero.
Jobs and Skills Australia estimates in the next decade, as we as a nation make that transition, two million extra jobs will be needed to support our country. More than 90% will require post-school qualifications, and about half will come from the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.
For a long time, VET has been portrayed as a second-rate choice. Living in a metropolitan area and having a university degree has been the goal for so many. But as Australia evolves, so too must our views about the regions and VET. The Universities Accord Interim Report highlighted this very issue, encouraging “parity of esteem between the VET and higher education sectors”. I look forward to policy recommendations in this space.
Earlier this month, at the Regions Rising NSW event in Orange, I unveiled the RAI’s latest research report, Against the Odds: Realising Regional Australia’s Workforce Potential (funded by the Australian, state and territory governments through the Intergovernmental Shared Inquiry Program). It takes a deep dive into regional employment ecosystems and focuses in on six key demographics of regional Australians, who have historically experienced lower levels of labour force participation than average: young people (15-24 year olds), older people (55 years +), First Nations people, migrants (overseas born and low-English proficiency), people with a disability and people with dependent children. RAI analyses show there are more than 50,000 people within these key demographics, who have reported a desire to be in the workforce.
Evidence is mounting, that the VET sector could have a pivotal role to play. Jobs and Skills Australia’s newly released report VET Student Outcomes – Top 100 courses, has shown extraordinary results for some of the six demographics studied in detail in Against the Odds. Prior to entering one of the courses studied in the report, just over 50% of people with a disability were on income support. After a VET course, that fell to just under 25%.
Boosting regional participation rates and supporting people who’ve traditionally faced barriers to employment is complex. Whilst VET can play a significant role, it won’t be a panacea for the entirety of the issue. It is a big, wicked problem that will take a coalition of willing players to work together to realise change.
In Orange, I was delighted to connect with some of those willing players, including Anthony Dawson from Workforce Australia Local Jobs, funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, who spoke to the recent “Essentials Day” held in Orange. This day saw government agencies, mental health support services, housing providers, and driver training businesses come together in an expo-like set up. A place to allow potential workers to take the first steps in helping address some of the barriers to employment. A simple concept, but one that could have a profound impact.
Kevin Maguire from Wangarang Industries, a not-for-profit Australian Disability Enterprise told me, “Once people are able to show what their abilities are, the disability disappears.” His overwhelming message was for employers to embrace employees with disability.
Against the Odds further highlights a number of case studies that demonstrate the innovative, life-changing practices already working to connect jobseekers with jobs in the regions.
For example, in Queensland, the Council on the Ageing (COTA) has a Home Care Workforce Support Program, which aims to grow the home care workforce by 13,000 people over the next two years, by attracting older workers. Feedback shows many of these older workers are thriving in these positions, getting both personal satisfaction out of the care they are providing, as well as performing a vital service that will become even more important, and in demand, as nation ages.
One of regional Australia’s greatest strengths has always been its people. Imagine the further strength regional Australia could possess if more systems, supports, and self-determining frameworks were in place to allow the 50,000 people identified in Against the Odds to enter the workforce? It’s something I hope we can collectively work together to propel our shared vision to ‘rebalance the nation’, because if we get it right, regional Australia will jump right off that precipice and into its prosperous, dynamic future.
Finally, as we close out another year, the RAI would like to thank you for being part of our 2023 journey. The team and I wish you a restful, fun, and safe holiday so you are re-energised for the year ahead.
Liz Ritchie – CEO