Business

Australia suffers skills crunch

Australia is facing a jobs crunch caused by its resources sector drawing workers from other industries in search of higher wages.

Almost half of companies in the nation's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), cannot recruit enough qualified staff, as they struggle to compete with wages in the mining hubs of Western Australia and Queensland.

There are jobs galore in parts of this vast country, where the national unemployment rate is 5% and falling.

New South Wales Business Chamber spokesman Paul Ritchie says there are about 200,000 vacancies across Australia.

Of those, 40% are in New South Wales, where the state capital, Sydney, has become a jobseekers' paradise, especially for those eyeing positions in white-collar professions, such as law and accounting, or as labourers, shop assistants and gardeners.

"Every job not filled in many ways is a lost economic opportunity," Mr Ritchie told the BBC.

Filling vacancies

To plug the gaps in Australia's labour market, there are loud calls for a revamp of the vocational training system, while the NSW Business Chamber suggests altering the tax and welfare regimes to encourage people back into employment, including older workers and mothers.

Then there is a demand for the federal government to increase skilled migration - a politically contentious solution to Australia's jobs crunch.

"There is, historically, in many countries a sense of fear around immigration, a fear that other people will take jobs - but we have 200,000 jobs that are unfilled.

Image caption Western Australia is experiencing a 'golden era'

"That number is only going to increase as employment grows in the coming year as expected - but also because we have in Australia an ageing population," Mr Ritchie said from his office in Sydney.

Thousands of kilometres away, on the other side of the continent, in the resource-rich west, these are boom times for residents, known colloquially as "sand gropers".

"Generally, Western Australians believe that they are living through a golden era in the most dynamic state in Australia," said Mark Read, general manager at westjobs.com.au, a recruitment website.

"It is difficult to avoid the continual flow of good news stories that continue to emerge from Western Australia - record business confidence, Australia's lowest unemployment rate, hundreds of billions committed to future development projects and a huge and ongoing appetite for skills," he added.

Sky-high salaries

Out west, wages in the mining sector, for caterers, drivers and mechanics, can be up to three times what they are elsewhere.

Cleaners can pocket up to 120,000 Australian dollars ($152,000; £92,000), and the good news does not end there.

High salaries in many remote regions are also complemented by free or subsidised accommodation, meals, drinks and entertainment, although shiftwork in harsh conditions is not for the pampered.

For more skilled workers, geologists can expect an annual pay packet of 140,000 Australian dollars, while project managers could earn 270,000 Australian dollars and mine managers 285,000 Australian dollars.

However, the magnetic force exerted by the resources bonanza in Western Australia and Queensland that attracts legions of workers from other parts of the country and overseas worries the Housing Industry Association, which is warning of a serious shortage of skilled staff in the residential construction market.

"In the short term it is difficult to be managing a resources boom at the same time as ensuring that other sectors aren't being left behind," the association's chief economist, Harley Dale, told the BBC news website.

Other financial economists, though, are less concerned.

Image caption The mining boom has boosted the Australian economy

Christopher Joye, the chief executive of Rismark International, believes Australia will get richer as the mining sector continues to expand.

"It is actually a good thing in a sense. On the one hand we've got this incredibly strong part of the economy that is propelling growth forward and is placing high demands on labour and skills," said Mr Joye.

He also feels Australia needs to look beyond its borders to solve a worsening shortage of workers, with the federal government predicting a shortfall of more than 35,000 tradespeople in the resources sector by 2015.

"The not-so-good thing is as a result of the xenophobic debate at the last election, we had a radical reduction in immigration," he said.

"We're an immigrant nation. 40% of us has a parent born overseas and it is very important that we continue to import the labour we require to support the economy."

More on this story