Home | Opinion | Regions must be a priority for Jobs and Skills Summit, or national economy pays the price: opinion
CQU VC Nick Klomp visits a trades training facility. Photo: Supplied

Regions must be a priority for Jobs and Skills Summit, or national economy pays the price: opinion

Tried to hire a tradie lately? Or book a GP appointment? Or get an Uber at peak hour?

Spare a thought for regional communities. While our capital cities struggle through the worst skills shortage in recent memory, regional Australia is doing it even tougher.

Recent National Skills Commission data reveals regional employers can only fill 57 per cent of their vacancies, compared to 63 per cent in the cities.

And of the 127 occupations that are currently in shortage in Queensland, for example, 18 are unique to the regions. According to the regional employers I’ve spoken to, it’s only getting worse.

As our nation’s thought leaders converge on Canberra this week for the inaugural Jobs & Skills Summit, I urge them to spare a thought for their friends outside of the big smoke.

The 2019 Napthine Review reminded us that Australians who grow up in regional, rural and remote communities are around 40 per cent less likely to attend university than their city counterparts. Similar statistics exist for the VET sector.

You can draw a direct line between this disturbing trend and the current regional skills crisis; shortages of teachers, nurses, engineers and physiotherapists mean basic services aren’t being delivered, even in regions that are rapidly growing as a result of the inflation-driven exodus from the cities.

Need proof? Gladstone – a regional Queensland city of around 35,000 people – has a 14-bed, state-of-the-art maternity ward, but I understand there is not a single working obstetrician to staff it. Parents in labour must make the stressful and potentially treacherous 90-minute drive to Rockhampton to birth their children.

Fixing this shocking imbalance requires innovative policy and funding measures to make regional education and training more attractive to regional people – and that should be a focal point for the jobs and skills summit.

It may be tempting for our metropolitan colleagues to dismiss this plight as a “country problem”.

Not true; Australia derives around 80 per cent of its national export revenue from regional, rural and remote communities – so a failure to solve this challenge for regional industry puts the entire country in economic peril.

And this challenge can’t be addressed by metropolitan solutions that simply “hollow out” the regions – regional communities need the support to provide their own long-term solutions.

I’m happy to see the Albanese Government tackling the jobs and skills issue so early in their first term of government. And I’m delighted that Universities Australia has a seat at the Summit table, to represent the concerns of their regional member universities.

But it’s tangible solutions – and not just lip service – that are desperately needed if we are to defeat the skills shortage that has befallen regional Australia.

It’s our regional tertiary education and training providers that are on the front lines of this battle. We now desperately need the ammunition to win the war.

Professor Nick Klomp is vice chancellor at CQUniversity and chair of the Regional Universities Network.

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