Lots of people are discussing Australia's skills "crisis", capacity constraints, the blockages to economic growth caused by the lack of a skilled workforce and the need to boost productivity. But who's to blame for all of this?
I was talking to someone on Thursday who thought the answer was pretty clear; "the Howard Government." He is not alone, lots of people are blaming the Government (sub req) and a lack of foresight:
"Since at least 1999, Australian governments, state and Commonwealth, have been aware of widespread shortages in key areas. Between 1993 and 2002 there was an overall 16 per cent decline in the training rate in the metals, building, construction, vehicle and electrical areas compared with the previous decade. This means that our national training effort has not been sufficient to replace and maintain the level of skilled workers in these vital sectors of the national economy."
This is fair enough too, PM Howard must shoulder some of the blame, and his lame defence on the ABC's Insiders doesn't help matters;
"We do have some skills shortages - I identified that, the Government identified that months ago," he said.
"It is not as if this has crept up on us and it is only something we have become aware of in the last few weeks.
"We were on the case of skill shortages months ago."
Months ago? Oh, that's good then. At least he is on top of it!
Of course that is ridiculous; he sounds a bit like an innocent bystander who is completely surprised by what has happened; a rabbit stunned by headlights. It is fair to ask how come we have only just realised that we are running out of a skilled workforce?
But is it entirely the Governments fault?
For the past fourteen years we have been living in rays of fin economic sunshine; we have consistently produced budget surpluses on both state and federal levels, to the point where our Governments are flush with cash. But what have they spent it on? Not much. Certainly not any major skills-encouraging infrastructure projects that's for sure. We have demanded that our Governments produce surpluses. It's almost as if we are happy for them to keep our money in the bank rather than spending it. Why? Why, when debt has been so cheap have we been so scared to go into deficit? Too scared to borrow to build roads, dams or undertake any other major project that encourages people to learn new skills?
Because we'd vote out a Government that did to us, that's why.
I also think that Australia's corporate leaders should tread carefully when it comes to pointing the finger at the Government, because they aren't entirely guilt free in all of this either.
Listed Australian companies have just produced their biggest profit margins since the heady days of the late 1980's; but none of them seem to understand that sustainable earnings means investing on a range of activities (like training and R&D) that take a while to kick into the bottom line. I read recently that fewer that 25% of Australian companies provide training that leads to qualifications.
Take BHP Billiton for example. They would rather spend $9billion to take over WMC and it's "ready to go" Olympic Dam mine, rather than spend even half of that employing some people and doing some of it's own exploration. That isn't the Government's fault. Nor is the fact that WMC seems to think that increasing its apprentice numbers from 35 last year to 45 this year makes it a good corporate citizen. For a mining giant the size of WMC (which will make in excess of $1billion this year) to only employ 45 apprentices is pathetic.
So whilst the Government needs to do its bit the re-equip our workforce with in demand skills, Big Business and Big Bosses with even Bigger salaries need to do their bit as well.