Release type: Speech


Business Council of Australia address, Sydney


The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business


The value of work – Hungry Mile

2021 was another year of great disruption. We are over a year on from the pandemic recession. A year into our economic recovery.

And while we still face some challenges and uncertainty, things are looking pretty good.

Today we sit in a resplendent tower in Barangaroo. 
But beneath our feet, and the steel and the glass, sits Australian history – the history of Australia’s workforce.

This part of Sydney was not always frequented by well-heeled white-collars. It was in fact once a docklands.

90 years ago in May 1931, a Labor government responded to a great economic shock by reducing government expenditure by 20%, by cutting wages and pensions, and increasing taxes.

Banks failed. Commodity prices fell. Jobs evaporated.

By 1933 one in three Australian breadwinners was unemployed.

Many of them came here to this very area to find work. 
Scenes of desperation were commonplace as job tickets were tossed into crowds and fought over.

This stretch became known as the ‘Hungry Mile’ as those who didn’t snatch a ticket made their way back home empty handed, which meant an empty stomach. 

90 years on, today in Australia we face the opposite problem to those dark days – in fact the strength of our economic comeback has driven many of you in this room to lament over the shortage of available skilled workers. 

I tell this story to remind all of us of where we would have been if not for the record investment made by the Morrison Government to secure Australians and their jobs.

Because all of us here recognise the intrinsic value of work.  
A job is not just a way of making money or generating value, it gives an individual purpose, it gives each of us the certainty and confidence to live a full life.  

When we get the nation’s workforce right, the country goes forward together, when we get it wrong, well it can get a little untidy.
As the first Federal Minister for Workforce I have been charged with a role akin to that of an orchestral conductor—responsible for ensuring that, like an orchestra, our labour market is properly tuned to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

So today I want to reflect on how Australia’s workforce has fared through the pandemic; I will update you on the State of Australia’s Skills; I will share our vision for how the Morrison Government is approaching the challenge that is securing Australia’s workforce; and I will announce a raft of immediate workforce measures developed to help address near-term workforce pressures.  

Challenge – COVID- Pandemic recovery 

In Australia our workforce has fared exceptionally well in the face of the most significant shock to our economy since World War Two.

Our measures such as JobKeeper and our apprentice wage supports, have supported around four million individuals and one million businesses – saving 700,000 jobs.
Lives and livelihoods were saved and we did the work to ensure our economy would bounce back, and it has. 

The RBA is forecasting the Australian economy will grow by 5.5 per cent next year.

Unemployment to fall to four per cent by the middle of 2023.

Job ads right now are at the highest level in 13 years.

We've seen encouraging signs about the increase in jobs post the Delta lockdowns, reflected in ABS payroll data, and 350,000 jobs in five weeks have come on.

Today, Australia’s economy is roaring back. But the workforce story is one that will play out over the years and decades to come. 

While we have reason to be positive, we also need to be mindful that we are also tackling uneven growth. We have a clear divide between the supply and demand in regional versus metro parts of this country and we have a mismatch between the skills and qualifications required for advertised jobs in certain areas.

In anticipation of this need for skilled workers across the country, support for apprenticeships was one of the first steps we took as a government after COVID hit. 

It has been one of the great successes to see so many Australians, including many young Australians, in a job and developing their skills and securing their prospects throughout the period.

We have invested billions of dollars into supporting apprentices because we knew they faced the greatest risk of job loss, and we knew that we would need them on the other side.  

As the Prime Minister has said we faced the prospect of a lost generation of skills in this country because of the pandemic.

Instead of a lost generation of skills we are seeing a golden era across the skills sector. And that investment will pay dividends for decades to come.

Believe me when I say 2021 is the Year of the Australian Apprentice.

Thanks to our record funding for skills and training—$6.4billion in this year alone—we are in the midst of an apprenticeship boom. The latest data shows there are over 220,000 trade apprentices in training in Australia— this a new record high since data was first collected in 1963. 

And we have also seen the total number of apprentices and trainees increase by 30 per cent on pre-COVID levels.

Because we backed our apprentices we are seeing a strong pipeline of tradies across the country. 

Our JobTrainer program, in partnership with the states, is providing Australians with in-demand skills that will help them land a good quality job and help meet our workforce demands. JobTrainer will support 460,000 places and 270,000 Australians have already been enrolled.

Importantly, 43,800 of these subsidised funding places have been reserved for training for our Aged Care and Digital workforces, two sectors that we all know need our full support.

This is good to see, because as many of you in the room know full well, we are going to need them—with an estimated one million new jobs required across the economy in the next five years.

So I am proud to say that today, well over a year on from our big economic shock, Australia’s workforce is looking strong. 

But it is important we keep our foot on the accelerator and our eyes on the horizon

Which is why the work the National Skills Commission, which the Morrison Government created in 2020, is doing is so important when it comes to building our workforce and guiding our investments into the right areas to help us achieve this. 

Under the Commissioner Adam Boyton, who is here with us today, the National Skills Commission is playing an increasingly important role in our national conversation, identifying emerging and future workforce skills needs and enabling us to develop targeted and evidence-based policies to maximise our investment in skills and employment.

State of skills – Key Takeaways 

The National Skills Commission has just tabled the first State of Australia’s Skills report. It is now available for everyone to read and it confirms that not only is our workforce changing but it needs to get skilled with more than 90 per cent of new jobs that will emerge in the next five years set to require post-school qualifications.

It also highlights that some of the most important and rapidly growing skills needs over the coming years are:

•    Care – the group of skills responding to demographic change
•    Computing – a group of skills needed to respond to the digital world and increasing use of digital technologies
•    Cognitive abilities – the group of advanced reasoning and higher order skills computers cannot easily replace
•    Communication – skills needed to collaborate and engage within and across the workplace.

The National Skills Commission has identified over 150 assessed occupations are in shortage nationally, with 57 occupations that are in shortage having strong projected future demand for skilled workers.

We know that currently, shortages are most common in the Technicians and Trades Workers occupation group, with 42 per cent assessed as in shortage. For many of these jobs, shortages have been persistent over time. We would like to see this shortage addressed as our current crop of trade apprentices complete their training in the coming years.

Looking forward, demand will be strongest for high skilled workers and for jobs in the services sector.

The National Skills Commission anticipates that in the next five years more than nine out of 10 new jobs will require post-school qualifications, reflecting the importance of both tertiary education and skills development.

Health Care and Social Assistance is projected to make the largest contribution to employment growth, increasing by 249,500 in the five years to November 2025.

Four services industries are projected to generate over 60 per cent of total employment growth. These are: 
•    Health Care and Social Assistance 
•    Accommodation and Food Services
•    Professional, Scientific and Technical Services, and 
•    Education and Training.

In the face of this evolving skills picture the Morrison Government is taking a principles-based approach to building Australia’s workforce. 

A Principles based response to building Australia’s workforce

Principle 1 is Transparent Data: Use data to create transparency of the current and future workforce — to inform decisions by individuals and business and underpin Government action.

We know that to get this right, we don’t just need the best possible information, we need to better harness data so we can target skills and training to exactly what is needed, when it is needed and importantly, where it is needed.

I am announcing today that the Morrison Government is investing in building a New Data Asset which will provide connected information for government and business and provide a real-time, regional and local area view of Australia’s workforce, skills and labour market. Data at a regional level will provide us with a better picture of the supply and demand, assist with workforce planning and mean that both business and government will be able to focus on better matching of skills and training to local needs. 
I can look at an early version of this Data Asset today and tell you that in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie region the unemployment rate is 3.9% and there are 19,941 people on the jobactive caseload, of whom 71% are less than 50 years of age. I can also see that there are 3,821 online job ads and 85% require a post school qualification however 43% of the caseload have this level of education.

Principle 2 is Skill Australians: Equip Australians with in-demand skills and focus employment services on outcomes — to reduce skills mismatches, increase productivity and boost domestic employment.

Principle 3 is Remove barriers and disincentives to work — to increase workforce participation and opportunities. 
We must look at how we can remove barriers to employment participation, especially for women, our mature workforce and for disadvantaged groups, so that as we recover from COVID-19 we have a pipeline of skilled workers in a range of critical industries.

This is what our new employment services model, our reform to employment services for job seekers, employers and providers is all about.

To go some way in removing barriers and disincentives for older Australians who want to continue to pitch in. We are going to be making it easier for working Pensioners to resume the Age Pension. This initiative will support age pensioners who choose to re-enter the workforce or increase their work hours by making it easier for them to return to the Age Pension if their payment is reduced to nil due to their income exceeding the income limit.

Principle 4 is Activate industry to design and drive change — to take ownership of and actively engage in meeting their workforce needs.

There has never been a better time for industry to step up, get engaged, and play such a pivotal role in shaping the future prosperity of this nation. 

I invite you also to give Australians a go.  As I have said before, the jobactive caseload has a significant proportion of job seekers who entered during covid and are coming up to two years on the caseload. For example there are nearly 400,000 of our most job ready job seekers (we refer to as Stream A) of whom 81% have entered the caseload since COVID commenced, 19% are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse job seekers, about half haven’t completed a post school qualification and 43% are over 40 years of age. 

Our final principle, Principle 5 is targeted migration. Targeted migration to fill skills and labour gaps — to ensure workforce shortages do not constrain economic growth.
There will always be a role of targeted migration in this country but we will always unashamedly take an Australia-first approach to getting Australians skilled and into a job.

When I talk about an Australia-first approach – I mean that, if there are skills gaps to fill, we want Australians to have the ‘first crack’, at getting that opportunity.

As we know, the available supply of workers has been impacted by COVID-19 and the temporary closure of international borders. 

The fall in temporary migrants has tightened labour supply in some industries and occupations where they are heavily relied upon – falling by over 600,000 across all visa types.
The Treasury estimates that Australia’s population will be 1.1 million smaller by 2030-31 than it would have been had it not been for the pandemic.  

But while skilled migration will play a role in our recovery, we have to do all that we can to get more Australians into available jobs, or training for the jobs of tomorrow.

And many Australians are already answering the call, to get into training and increase their skills. 

For those migrants already in the country who may have been caught here by the pandemic, I would like to announce today that the Morrison Government will be investing in ‘Faster, Cheaper, More Flexible Skills Recognition’. This initiative will widen the pool of skilled workers available to address Australia’s urgent workforce needs. It involves fast-tracking active skills assessments for occupations with skills shortages, waiving fees and fast-tracking assessments for migrants in Australia yet to undergo a skills assessment. It also will provide free employability assessments and support for migrants working at a skill level below their qualifications.

A big piece of the puzzle is improving our byzantine skills and training system. Which is why our skills reform agenda is key to building Australia’s workforce.  

Skills Reforms 

Our ambitious skills reform program will see us continue to strengthen the foundations of the system to ensure we’re training Australians with the right skills to get the jobs in demand. We need to maintain a laser like focus on ensuring our skills system can respond more quickly and more specifically to the needs of our industry – to your needs!

We are doing this through continuing work with the states and territories towards funding reform that will better link governments’ investment in training that meets our current and emerging workforce needs.

We are also working with all jurisdictions to progress quality and qualification reforms to focus on outcomes and excellence, and to streamline qualifications. This will ensure training products are more fit-for-purpose, leading to higher quality training, improved learner outcomes, and clearer employment pathways.

Importantly, these reforms will be underpinned by improvements to the collection, timeliness, and transparency of data across the VET system.

We have also recently announced the establishment of new Industry Clusters, which will strengthen industry leadership to identify, forecast and more rapidly respond to the current and emerging skills needs and workforce challenges of their industries. 

What this looks like is our Digital Skills Organisation partnering with the Tech council of Australia, global leading tech companies like Canva and Atlassian - partnering with government to tackle tech workforce challenges together.   

We need to accelerate qualifications to build workforce at pace. 

So we are investing $10.5 million over the next three years to work intensively with the New South Wales and South Australian governments to pilot novel approaches to accelerate qualification completion time. We will work to fast track entry into the workforce through the apprenticeship and traineeship sector. 

It is time to move towards competency-based qualifications ensuring we can move with the times and build our workforce as the economy evolves. 

We are investing $292.5 million over the next four years to support these industry engagement reforms—building on the $6.4 billion investment we’ve made in skills and training this financial year.

We also want to see greater flexibility right across the tertiary education sector. 

I am announcing today that the Morrison Government is embracing the rise of microcredentials, which we see as playing a big role in flexible upskilling our workforce. 

We will work with higher education providers to deliver innovative industry-focused short courses, with $32.5 million committed between 2021-22 to 2024-25 to pilot a systemic approach to deliver microcredentials in the university sector, including $8 million in seed funding for Australian industry to develop up to 70 globally relevant microcredentials for international and onshore implementation.

I am also announcing that Undergraduate Certificates will continue to be available under the Australia Qualification Framework for at least the next three and a half years.  Ensuring this key bridge to higher learning is maintained.

Our reform agenda is important because as Adam, our Skills Commissioner keeps telling me, we need to make sure our systems can keep pace with the evolving skills mix of the 21st century economy. 

While it is important to keep our eyes up as we secure Australia’s future workforce we are also focused on securing our recovery today. 

Further to the new measures I have already discussed today these additional workforce measures have been developed to help address near-term workforce pressures.

Measures to help address near-term workforce pressures

These new measures, that I am announcing today, can be categorised into three themes: 
•    Boosting participation and maximising opportunity;
•    Better utilising and securing the migrant workforce and 
•    Building transparent data. 

Boosting participation and maximising opportunity

We’ve developed measures to boost workforce participation and maximise opportunity. 

We are increasing the number of our highly successful jobs fairs in regional and metropolitan areas and connect more Australians with tens of thousands of local jobs. Just last week our Hobart Jobs Fair was attended by 1,153 Job Seekers with 1,103 vacancies.

We’re also expanding the successful Launch into Work program, providing nearly $20 million each year to support businesses to deliver pre-employment projects that prepare job seekers for entry-level vacancies in their organisation.

We’re expanding the much-valued 1800 CAREER service to include Australians aged 25 and older who are self-managing their search for work through the Government’s online employment services over a six-month trial. 

From next year through to June 2024, we will provide more than $49 million to double the number of places in The Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers Program and increase the number of Skills and Training Incentives available.

As I noted earlier, we’re also making it easier for older job seekers to remain engaged in the labour market. Aged pensioners who choose to re-enter the workforce or increase their work hours will benefit from an easier return to the Age Pension if they exceed the income limit and can also keep their Pensioner Concession Card for two years.

We want to better utilise and secure our migrant workforce

We are going to support migrants to Australia to take up work in areas of demand which our domestic workforce is unable to fill. We’re investing nearly $20 million through to 2023-24 to deliver faster, cheaper skills assessments.
Building transparent data

Another one of my Ministerial hats is ostensibly the Minister responsible for Data and Digital and I am proud to say we are getting pretty nerdy with data when it comes to securing our workforce. 

We’re investing $10 million to develop an integrated data tool that can deliver a comprehensive, near real-time, regional view of Australia’s workforce, skills, and labour market.

This level of data will help respond to regional labour market challenges, ensuring effective targeting of available resources. 

And of course, there are whole-of-government initiatives that all tie in together. Lower taxes and our child care changes will help cut the cost of living and help boost workforce participation. 

We all recognise how important child care is for boosting workforce participation, especially for women. 

That is why we are investing in additional support for child care as part of the 2021-22 Budget, to help women who have had a second child to return to the workforce and continue to progress their own careers while also strengthening Australia’s economy. 

Once these policy changes take full effect, our Government will be spending about $11 billion a year on child care – the most in Australian history.


A year into our economic recovery and Australia’s workforce is strong. 

Jobs are abundant. Australians have the opportunity they need to get ahead. 

The Hungry Mile rightly remains relegated to the history books. 

But we need to keep at it. We need to secure our economic recovery. 

The Morrison Government will continue to implement a coordinated, industry-informed and data-driven response to the workforce challenges of today, and into the future. 

We will drive the nation’s prosperity for years to come and ensure that efforts are directed where they are needed, and that people get the right skills for jobs today and tomorrow. 

Our approach puts Australians first – because there has never been a better time to get into employment and to train for the jobs of the future.

I look forward to working with industry to deliver the workforce that Australia needs to foster continued economic prosperity.

So we can all move forward together.

Thank you.