As Australia finds itself in the grips of a mass skills shortage, what can HR do to fill in the gaps?
Just this week an additional 22 occupations, including chefs, accountants and engineers, were added to the Australia’s Priority Migration Skilled Occupations List.
Established last September, the scheme aims to tackle the acute skills shortage gripping Australia by prioritising the migration of skilled workers in these professions, provided they adhere to COVID-19 and quarantine measures.
The news arrived after the Motor Trades Association of Australia reported a critical shortage of 31,000 automotive professionals last month. It’s the biggest figure that the MTAA has recorded to date.
Meanwhile, a shortfall of resource workers, such as electricians, mining engineers, welders and metallurgists, is putting Western Australia’s resources sector under immense pressure, and allowing doubt to fester about whether certain infrastructure growth projects will even be seen to completion.
Evidently, this isn’t just an industry specific problem, it’s occurring across the board.
KPMG’s post-COVID-19 CIO survey revealed that 62 per cent of respondents believe the skills shortage is preventing their organisation from keeping up with the pace of change.
With all this in mind, here are four ways that organisations can think outside the box to respond to the critical skills shortage.
1. Redesigning positions
If filling gaps in your organisation through traditional recruitment is proving to be a challenge, consider restructuring some positions to disperse work through different avenues.
Engaging contingent workers to perform certain assignments grants a company greater flexibility to wind their contract or freelance workers up or down in accordance with current workflow.
Moreover, contingent workers may boost a company’s productivity level.
Forty-eight per cent of business leaders think contract workers are more productive than full-time employees, according to the 2016 Workforce Productivity Report.
When independent workers are contracted to complete a specific task, they won’t be distracted by opportunities for team collaboration that form part of being in a workplace.
The productivity report also found that 71 per cent of business leaders believe contractors have more specialised skills than full-time employees, which bodes well for addressing the current dearth of specialised skills.
On the flip side, however, companies should be wary of depending too heavily on contingent workers.
AHRI board member and leader of PwC’s Future of Work market Ben Hamer says while a contingent workforce can help with filling an immediate skills shortage, it’s a “Band-Aid solution to closing the skills gap because it doesn’t address the root cause of why a skills gap exists in the first place”.
By wiping out onboarding costs and ongoing remuneration, outsourcing can also be an effective cost-saving strategy, Harmer warns that in the current skills-constrained market, employers will need to “pay top dollar” for specialised workers.
As HRM has previously reported, relying on contingent labour can very easily become part of the problem. At the time, Peter Hamilton, vice president and regional director for Asia Pacific at KellyOCG, told HRM, “When it’s managed well, it does provide organisations with flexibility and access to highly-skilled talent that they’re not necessarily having to train and develop themselves. But this process is essentially what’s driving the skills shortage, because organisations want to buy ready-made skills.”
Advocating for a longer-term and forward-thinking strategy, Hamer proposes redesigning jobs in sectors experiencing a severe shortage.
For example, in the care economy, he expects Australia will see a nation-wide shortage of 123,000 nurses by 2030 and 180,000 aged care nurses by 2050, due to the ageing population.
One solution to the shortage of nursing staff could be to split the role into multiple positions based on skills and qualification requirements, he suggests.
“Research shows that nurses are overqualified for the majority of tasks they do. We should be challenged to redesign some of these roles, so nurses are completing tasks at the top of their license,” says Hamer.
He suggests the tasks they are typically overqualified for, such as documenting patient care, providing bedside support, ensuring a safe and clean work environment, still require a qualification but can instead be fulfilled by another professional in “a new role that has lower level skills and is quicker to train”.
“By extension of that, you are increasing the supply of talent.”
2. Form partnerships to address skills shortage
Last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a forecasted 85 per cent fall in net overseas migration in 2020-21 compared to 2018-19 levels.
For companies struggling to secure local talent within Australia, it’s worth considering alternative options as a longer-term plan, such as overseas employment pathways, that could fill critical skill shortages once international borders start to reopen.
Prior to COVID-19, Tammy Kassiou founded International Mobility Services (IMS), which works with countries including Vanuatu, Timor Leste and the Philippines to increase labour supply across Australia.
IMS pre-screens candidates based in these countries, and then tees them up with Australian-based organisations that are currently experiencing a skills shortage, such as the agriculture, horticulture, hospitality and construction industries.
The organisation also aims to understand and meet the changing demands of a workforce in the short to medium-term. IMS’s work with an aged-care organisation based in Queensland is a prime example.
“This company has constructed some state-of-the-art aged care facilities, and it has a big expansion plan in Queensland,” says Kassiou.
“By getting to understand their needs, we are now initiating overseas training in aged care community service, in accordance with Australian standards, to start preparing workers to take up those opportunities.
“The aged care sector has some serious skills shortages and challenges in attracting talent, and we hope to address that.”
IMS currently has a pool of workers ready to enter the workforce in Australia, but each applicant is undergoing an extensive approval process due to international border restrictions.
“It’s only where there is a specific process, quarantine protocols and a COVID-19 mitigation plan in place that this can happen,” says Kassiou.
“But in a place like Vanuatu, because there is very little COVID, there is discussion about opening up to mobilise workers sooner rather than later.”
Even though most Australian businesses won’t be in a position to leverage this international talent right now, Kassiou suggests organisations start to think ahead.
“It’s important not to be reactive in your approach, and work towards engaging skilled overseas workers that can be tapped once travel restrictions lift.”
3. Invest in digital training
According to the Foundation for Young Australians , the demand for digital skills has increased by more than 200 per cent since 2012.
Australia was already experiencing a digital skills shortage prior to COVID-19, but the transition to hybrid working has compounded the problem, since a considerable portion of the workforce has not yet acquired the requisite skills to operate confidently in a digital-first world.
Hamer says organisations therefore need to invest in developing the foundational digital literacy of their workforce.
“This means that when they implement a new technology, there is also a corresponding investment in ensuring people know how to use it.
“That goes from complex systems through to using video conferencing technology, and not making assumptions about capability.”
Failing to roll out digital skills training could give rise to “a growing digital divide between the haves and have nots”, he warns.
“The people who are digital natives, have access to a good internet connection and are able to adapt with the pace of change, and those who could get left behind.”
Bridging the digital divide requires companies to make continual learning a core feature of their philosophy.
In a recent interview for ZDNet, Saleforce’s chief innovation officer, Simon Mulcahy, said all organisations need to start viewing themselves as education companies.
He praised startups including Cousera and the Khan Academy which are offering immersive online learning modules that avoid the traditional costs of training.
Salesforce also offers a free online learning platform that supports people with low digital literacy, he adds.
“[Salesforce’s] certifications and micro-credentials are an example of moving away from dependence on degrees toward tailored educational experiences,” says Mulcahy.
“Democratising education is key to closing the digital skills gap and ensuring the fruits of technological innovation are distributed equally.”
Do you want to learn strategies to address the skills shortage in your sector? Sign up for AHRI’s short course on Workforce Planning.