The Jobs and Skills Summit

Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit hosted by the Federal Government in Canberra was clearly designed to be a statement of intent by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Labor administration. Part policy endorsement, part policy road map, the Summit was hailed (by the Prime Minister at least) for reaching agreement on “36 immediate initiatives”. By all accounts, it was a jolly affair and everyone in the Government sounded very pleased with themselves. The reality is that despite some significant pronouncements, most of them lack detail, many of them relate to existing initiatives, a number of the “36 agreements” were largely concluded and/or telegraphed ahead of the Summit – and of course, the one item that got most attention was the most divisive: the renewed prospect of multi-employer collective bargaining.

Number of Australian companies by employment size, 2018-2022 (Source: ABS)

There were some contentious views about the small business association’s pre-Summit MoU with the ACTU. Some peak industry bodies and other commentators felt that COSBOA had “sold out” in apparently agreeing to sector-wide negotiations on pay and conditions. However, this does not appear to be the case – COSBOA is merely seeking better co-operation and consultation on areas of mutual interest, and is not endorsing any form of enforced unionisation or compulsory sector bargaining. There have been suggestions that sector-wide collective bargaining will result in higher wages, but without more detail, and pending greater clarity on the “Better Off Overall Test”, this will simply add friction to the current debate about wage and employment growth.

If we do return to a previous form of Industrial Relations policy, it’s interesting to look at the latest ABS data on Australian businesses by employment size (table above). I think it’s worth noting the number of working people in Australia who are employed by SMEs. Large employers are actually small in number, so if multi-employer collective bargaining does come into effect, it could mean tens of thousands of businesses will be involved, and many probably for the first time. On the other hand, in an industry like construction, which is both highly unionised and covered by significant industry awards, many workers are either self-employed or they are employed by independent sub-contractors.

Representation at the summit was reasonably well-balanced, between Unions (including Industry Superfunds), Business (individual companies and industry associations), the NFP and Community sectors, Academia, Think Tanks, and of course Politics. The absence of the Leader of the Federal Opposition meant that his voter base was effectively disenfranchised, although his Deputy (and Leader of the National Party) did attend. Go figure.

Much was said about “streamlining” and “updating” parts of the Industrial Relations regime. Like Australia’s tax laws, the system of Modern Awards as overseen by the Fair Work Commission feels unwieldy, unnecessarily complex, over-bureaucratic, at times vague, and often archaic bordering on arcane. There are currently over 140 different awards in place – some of them relate to an individual company, some to a particular trade or profession, and some cover a whole industry. Interpretation is often in the eye of the beholder as to whether or not it applies to a particular employer and/or employee – here is an extract from one award:

“NOTE: Where there is no classification for a particular employee in this award it is possible that the employer and that employee are covered by an industry modern award or a modern award with occupational coverage.” (Emphasis added.)

I should add that one reason given by the Labor Government for removing the prohibition on sector-wide collective bargaining is because the process for employers to request an exemption from the relevant Minister is “too cumbersome”. I don’t see how this is so given that much of the IR system is overly bureaucratic. Surely the reason for this administrative process is to avoid collusion and other cartel-like activities that would otherwise fall foul of competition law and anti-trust provisions.

The Summit had some notable things to say about gender equality and pay parity, (“Legislate same job, same pay”), training, immigration and child care; but some proposals sound vague without defined objectives (“Boost quantum technology research and education”); draconian if they inhibit workplace flexibility, especially in seasonal industries (“Limit the use of fixed-term contracts”); or too aspirational without more detail such as specific goals and measurable targets (“Leverage greater private capital into national priority areas, including housing and clean energy”). We know that Labor ministers have been vocal in their dislike of the so-called “gig economy” (a “cancer” on the economy, and “I’d like to regulate the sh*t out of it”), but perhaps they need to do more to understand why some workers actually prefer it, and what benefits it brings in terms of workplace flexibility, especially in start-ups and emerging sectors, many of which are SMEs from where much of our longer-term innovation and employment opportunities actually come.

One item that didn’t receive as much attention was the “Digital Apprenticeships Scheme”, which (subject to details…) would likely have the combined support of the Tech Council of Australia and the ACTU. Certainly, despite a vibrant and innovative IT sector, and some notable high-tech and high-end manufacturing businesses in Australia, we lag behind in STEM education, and lack basic digital literacy skills in the wider population. (Hence the need for adjustments to the skilled migration scheme?) A friend of mine who runs a small manufacturing business in Melbourne recently hired an Office Assistant. The successful candidate claimed to be proficient in standard productivity tools such as Word and Excel. In fact, they didn’t know how to COPY-PASTE, nor how to use the SUM-ALL function, which are both very basic routines. They thought they could “wing it” by watching a YouTube video…

Finally, if there is one note of caution or concern about the Summit, it is the niggling thought that this was more of a talk-fest, and that any new ideas to have emerged were either covered by existing programmes and “policy settings”, or were already in train. Going through the list of Outcomes, I counted at least three dozen separate initiatives (Plans, Schemes, Agreements, Reports, Statements, Codes, Programs, Compacts, Task Forces, Working Groups or Funds) many of which already exist, or were part of Labor’s election promises, or have been proposed prior to the Summit. (And that list excludes Federal Ministries and Government Departments.) Sounds a lot like “Talks about Talks”, with “new” money already allocated and spoken for (hence Labor’s push back on some of the implied costs of the Summit proposals). At worst, this “wish list” represents a huge amount of expensive and bureaucratic overlay, whereas we need agile and flexible economic, education and employment measures.

Next week: Finding a Voice

“What Should We Build?”

Over the past week, the Leader of the Federal Opposition has been asking a series of questions on Twitter and elsewhere, about “what should Australia be building?”. As well as building the foundations of Labor’s Federal Election policy platform for boosting jobs in the manufacturing sector, it also provides lots of photo ops for pollies in hard hats and hi-viz clothing. (I do wonder why the potential Prime Minister hasn’t thought of this idea before, or why he appears to not know the answer – isn’t that his job? It also makes me wonder whether we need Parliament anymore, since our elected representatives prefer to conduct their “debates” via Social Media and Press Conferences…. it would save a lot of time and money!)

By this time next year, Albo could be PM (Photo sourced from Twitter)

There has been no shortage of suggestions from the Twitterati, which fall into the following main categories:

  • Renewable energy
  • Trains
  • Trams
  • Ferries
  • High-end engineering

But there has also been commentary around Labor’s ambivalence on the coal and gas sector (especially in the key state of Queensland), and the irony that we export cheap raw materials and import expensive finished goods. Then there is debate on the amount of local manufacturing content that already exists in Australia’s state-based trains and urban trams/light rail systems (skewed by the question of local vs foreign ownership). Plus, there’s the thorny issue of high-speed inter-city trains…

As I commented recently, the manufacturing sector accounts for fewer than 1m local jobs (less than 10% of the working population), and 6% of GDP. It has been declining steadily as a contributor to GDP since the 1960s, and more rapidly in recent years since we abandoned key subsidies to the car industry. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we return to the days of metal bashing and white goods. And while we’ve got to be selective about the type of manufacturing base we want to to develop, we also have to be realistic about the manufacturing capabilities we want to encourage and enhance.

The latter involves developing transferable skills, creating interoperable production lines, deploying modular designs and inter-changeable components, and recycling/repurposing. All of which should mean we don’t need to make every part of every item domestically, but we know how to assemble, service, maintain, repair and replace goods locally, and we can focus on adding value that can be fed back into the supply chain, which in turn can be exported (via know-how and services). Australia has some decent research and development capabilities, but we are not always very good at raising domestic investment, or commerciliasing our IP (so this value ends up being transferred overseas, with little to no return accruing locally).

I’m not a huge fan of simplistic “buy local goods/support local jobs” campaigns, or local content quotas. The former can degenerate into trade protectionism and economic nationalism; while the latter tend to favour inefficient incumbents within cozy duopolies (see the broadcasting and media sector). The current debate has also raised questions about procurement policies, and I for one would welcome a total revamp of government IT purchasing and deployment at Federal, State and LGA levels.

There’s also the consumer angle: Australians are notoriously “cost conscious”, so will they be prepared to pay more for locally-made goods, even if they are better designed, well-made and energy efficient, compared to cheaper, less-sustainable imports? (This is also linked to the question of wage growth and restrictive trade practices.)

The recent pandemic has highlighted some challenges for the structure of the local economy:

  • Disruption to distribution networks and supply chain logistics
  • Food security
  • Energy self-sufficiency
  • Inability to service equipment locally or source spare parts
  • Different standards across the States
  • Medicine and vaccine manufacture, sourcing and distribution

For an up-to-date perspective on where Australian manufacturing policy needs to be heading, I recommend taking a look at the Productivity Commission’s latest submission to a current Senate enquiry. (Am I alone in thinking that the PC, along with the ACCC, is doing more to develop and advance economic policy than our elected representatives?)

The PC’s submission addresses a number of key points:

  • R&D incentives are hampered by complex tax treatment
  • Policies (and subsidies) favouring one industry create uncertainty for others
  • Need for IP reform (especially “fair use” of copyright)
  • The National Interest test needs clarifying
  • More effort on up-skilling through more relevant education and training
  • The role of manufacturing capabilities in supporting supply chain infrastructure

Finally, while I agree that there needs to be some focus on renewable energy and public transport, we should not ignore food and agriculture, bio-tech, IT, automation, robotics, materials science and other high-end capabilities in specialist design, engineering and recycling (including reclaiming precious minerals from obsolete equipment).

(And did I mention the “Innovation Agenda” and the revolving door at the Federal Ministry?)

Next week: Dead Pop Stars

From R&D to P&L

Last week, the leader of the Federal Opposition announced a $15bn reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country “that makes things”. With a specific focus on cars, trains and ships, this policy pledge sounded like a clarion call to the metal-bashing industries of old (and recalls either an 80s movie or a 60s pop song…). This followed the launch by the Victorian government of the $2bn “Breakthrough Fund”, aimed at enhancing the State’s R&D capabilities.

While this type of government largesse and targeted economic stimulus sounds welcome, I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent on covering some basic building blocks in the search for innovation and economic development – upgrading the primary, secondary and tertiary education for the 21st century (e.g, an integrated STEAM curriculum); funding budding entrepreneurs (e.g., job maker for the newly self-employed, especially those under 25); enhancing the SME loan market (e.g., making it easier to access working capital without first having to own real estate); and overhauling the procurement and “panel” regimes in the public and private sectors (e.g., giving more equitable access to start-ups and scale-ups).

The “reconstruction fund” talks about making equity stakes, and co-investing with the private sector and superannuation funds. This sounds great, but is it the role of government to pick winners? Surely it should be in the business of enabling innovation and facilitating the growth of SMEs (which is where much new employment is created, rather than in legacy industries and/or declining sectors). Also, because of the way their mandates are written (as well as their ROC models and fiduciary duties), traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors find it very difficult to write cheques for less than, say, $200m. Such a figure is generally far beyond what most start-ups or scale-ups are seeking – so these institutional funds are often placed with external managers who can slice them up into smaller allocations, which adds to the overall investment costs.

The role model for the $15bn fund is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which returned a cumulative 4.75% as at June 30, 2020. Certainly a higher return than the cash rate, but hardly competitive with other asset classes or investment returns, if that is a key measure of success. The CEFC performance is currently running below its own benchmark, and while the efforts of the CEFC have no doubt led to more jobs in the renewables and sustainability sectors, hard data is not easy to come by. In its favour, the CEFC has made a large number of small scale investments, which may well provide a template for Labor’s manufacturing fund (although it’s not evident what form those investments have taken).

In speaking to a range of people over the past few weeks (civil servants, start-up founders, VCs, CEOs of listed companies, etc.), the following mixed messages emerged:

  1. Well-meaning government officials tell you that they are “here to help” founders, start-ups, entrepreneurs, SMEs etc. Problem is, these bureaucrats can’t effect necessary systemic change in the way innovation is funded – they can only operate at a transactional level. Also, many entrepreneurs would politely suggest that the government could do more by getting out of the way…
  2. One VC took issue with my suggestion that Australia needs a better manufacturing supply chain that produces more local components that are interoperable/interchangeable, and which also encourages more user-serviceable (and therefore more sustainable) devices and appliances – he was advocating in favour of sealed units and thus a continued dependance on the manufacturer/distributor service model; whereas I think self-sufficiency in manufacturing also means more consumer choice in post-sales support.
  3. An innovative Australian fintech chose to list overseas because the local capital markets did not “get” its business model, while another locally-listed fintech faced similar obstacles with its own listing.
  4. A start-up founder looking for a modest amount of money for an R&D project (in the sustainability sector) had already secured an equal amount of funding “in kind” from a government agency – but was finding it somewhat difficult to match it with the equivalent private capital.
  5. Neighbours building a passive house have had to import energy-efficient triple-glazed window units – because they are not easily available locally, and the only supplier they could find would have cost at least 50% more.

Finally, the new Labor policy (especially if it aims to support the EV sector) will need to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of Australia’s subsidised car industry, and that the proposed fund is part and parcel of an integrated approach to public transport infrastructure, encompassing high-speed inter-city trains, smart cities with self-drive vehicles, better orbital routes connecting suburbs, and regional hubs that aren’t reliant on cars.

Next week: Synchronicity

Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired