The Stats Guy: There’s no UberJobs app to end the skills shortage. Time to try something else

Shutting out skilled migrants is like deleting the UberEats app, TND's stats whiz explains.

Shutting out skilled migrants is like deleting the UberEats app, TND's stats whiz explains. Image: TND

Hungry? Yep. UberEats for dinner? Sure. To steal the line from the ad, tonight I’ll be eating a double cheeseburger with bacon and extra pickles just like Hamish Blake.

Hang on. The app’s not working. Will I have to cook? All that’s left in the pantry is that weird gluten free pasta. I might starve. Without UberEats, feeding myself is hard.

That’s the position Australia is in and it ain’t pretty. We’ve always relied on overseas migration to satisfy our insatiable appetite for skilled workers. Closing the national border during the pandemic was like deleting the UberEats app. We can’t have skilled workers delivered conveniently to our doorstep by adding a job to the skilled occupations list.

While the unemployment rate went up during the lockdowns this wasn’t a problem. As businesses started to recover and were hiring again, they drew from the pool of unemployed workers and recent graduates; they raided the pantry. Our pantry is almost completely empty now.

This means we are nearing full employment. I will leave it to the economists to fight over whether an unemployment rate of 5 per cent or 4 per cent should be considered full employment. In either case, since we can’t order skilled migrant workers via UberEats at the moment, full employment is near.

This means we won’t be able to fill all job openings. This problem isn’t way off in the future. It’s happening now.

We already see the tourism and hospitality sectors struggling to find enough workers. These sectors long relied on international students and young folks on work and travel visas. Many of these jobs could be filled with local workers. This is even a good news story since in some cases long-term unemployed workers finally managed to return to the workforce.

Australian workers, especially in the low- and middle-skilled jobs, suffered from wage stagnation for decades. Logic dictates that competition for talent drives wages up. If I can’t find a worker for $25 per hour, will $30 do the trick?

It is, however, not guaranteed that a low unemployment rate will lead to rising wages across the board.

A bakery in a cute tourist town might look for an experienced pastry chef. There is no local talent available. Will increasing pay by five dollars per hour help to lure non-local talent to our cute tourist town? Even if, are there affordable rentals available? Increasingly we see housing in tourist hotspots as a barrier to securing workers.

Workers, especially in low- and middle-income jobs, can’t just easily be moved around the country. Companies pay for relocation of staff in the highest tax bracket, but paying for the relocation of a pastry chef is too much to ask. Many jobs at the lower end of the pay scale might not find local talent and don’t have enough pull to attract non-local talent.

Australia went from fearing high unemployment to facing a national skill shortage that slows our economic recovery. The federal government wisely budgeted for big infrastructure investments – a powerful way of growing our economy while creating middle-class jobs.

I think Australia needs to get into baking. Fast. We need to be better at baking than those fantastic women in the CWA.

Higher skilled jobs are always super-hard to fill quickly. They will be prioritised once our UberEats app starts working again.

Middle-skilled jobs, like tradies and manufacturing workers, can be baked a bit faster. Everyone will want them once Australia begins its infrastructure program and the millennials start needing bigger homes when they have kids.

We can’t create new workers at the rate we are used to from our pre-COVID UberEats days, we need to do something new: to upskill low-skilled workers from the gig-economy to take middle-skilled jobs in the trades. We could really change someone’s life if we start doing that.

We need to make becoming more highly qualified easy. I’ve got an idea! Let’s remove all barriers to TAFE. Why not make it universally free and offer free public transport once you have enrolled in a relevant course?

And before you shake your head and complain about how much that will cos, the cost doesn’t matter. Missing out on skilled workers to fill the jobs we need to boost our economy will be much more expensive.

So come on Australia. Forget that sourdough. We’ve got much more important baking to do.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter or LinkedIn for daily data insights.

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