Opinion: Talk is cheap in a jobs and skills crisis

t agenda that should be a simple tick and flick – such as the increase to Australia’s skilled migration intake. The Government has talked about increasing the cap from 160,000 to potentially 200,000 – a move that has widespread support in the retail industry. Industries like retail are reliant on people from overseas to supplement their workforce: especially when labour shortages are at a crisis stage and only getting worse. 

However, this must be balanced with the upskilling and training of our existing talent. Often, retail is overlooked in government programs around skills, training and apprenticeships, despite being our largest private sector employer and key to Australia’s economic prosperity. 

While there’s an urgent need to fill gaps in the labour market for frontline roles, we also need to prioritise expanding the pool of skilled labour to manage through the ongoing state of disruption. 

Opening up the local workforce

Older Australians can play an important role in addressing the staffing challenge, but they are currently limited in the amount they can earn before their pension payments are impacted. Doubling that amount would be a win all round – providing pensioners with the opportunity to supplement their income if they wish, access to a willing and capable workforce and creating a more empowered pension group that will be mobilised to work and spend. 

There are also social and community benefits to this move. Unsurprisingly, around 90% of our retail membership want to see this change enacted. At the other end of the spectrum, there is capacity to align frameworks around employing younger workers in first time retail jobs. With national disparity around the legal working age for students, this is another opportunity to create clarity and consistency for students who would like to work limited hours on weekends, holidays and evenings without interfering with their education. 

Improving women’s workforce participation is the most critical agenda item at the summit. This is a long overdue shift that can unlock short and long-term outcomes and is fundamental to our sector, which employs over 700,000 women. Australia has the second highest childcare costs in the world – it’s simply unaffordable for many working women and parents, who are turning down employment opportunities to care for their children. Solving childcare in this country isn’t just a social issue – it’s an economic reform that would unleash the potential of return-to-work parents.

The harder sell

There are other areas of reform that require greater deliberation. 

Our industrial relations system remains an untamed beast that throws up unwelcome challenges to workforce participation. The ARA welcomes the opportunity to address simplifying the award system and bargaining processes to increase flexibility for both the employer and employee. For the retail sector, productivity doesn’t require big structural reform. It’s simply a function of providing greater flexibility in part-time work arrangements that allow businesses to flex-up hours to meet consumer demand, while also providing more employees access to more hours and more secure work.

State and territory payroll tax regimes are effectively a tax on jobs, however achieving national consistency would reduce the regulatory burden on business, free up important resources and increase productivity outcomes. We also recommend removing disincentives in the tax system that inhibit the ability of employees to have more than one job without incurring a financial penalty.

The government has outlined five priority areas for the summit around growing productivity, boosting job security, wages and delivering a high-quality labour force through skills, training and migration. It looks good on paper and we’re encouraged by the level of consultation so far, with numerous ministers holding pre-event roundtables with key industry groups. 

While summits like this in the past have fallen flat in the past, we have reason to be optimistic this time round.  

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