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

Monash University Virtual Demo Day

Last week I was invited to participate in a Virtual Demo Day for students enrolled in the Monash University Boot Camp, for the FinTech, Coding and UX/UI streams. The Demo Day was an opportunity for the students to present the results of their project course work and to get feedback from industry experts.

While not exactly the same as a start up pitch night, each project presented a defined problem scenario, as well as the proposed technical and design solution – and in some cases, a possible commercial model, but this was not the primary focus. Although the format of the Demo Day did not enable external observers to see all of the dozen-plus projects, overall it was very encouraging to see a university offer this type of practical learning experience.

Skills-based and aimed at providing a pathway to a career in ICT, the Boot Camp programme results in a Certificate of Completion – but I hope that undergraduates have similar opportunities as part of their bachelor degree courses. The emphasis on ICT (Cybersecurity and Data Analytics form other streams) is partly in response to government support for relevant skills training, and partly to help meet industry requirements for qualified job candidates.

Industry demand for ICT roles is revealing a shortage of appropriate skills among job applicants, no doubt exacerbated by our closed international borders, and a downturn in overseas students and skilled migration. This shortage is having a direct impact on recruitment and hiring costs, as this recent Tweet by one of my friends starkly reveals: “As someone who is hiring about 130 people right now, I will say this: Salaries in tech in Australia are going up right now at a rate I’ve never seen.” So nice work if you can get it!

As for the Demo Day projects themselves, these embraced technology and topics across Blockchain, two-sided marketplaces, health, sustainability, music, facilities management, career development and social connectivity.

The Monash Boot Camp courses are presented in conjunction with Trilogy Education Services, a US-based training and education provider. From what I can see online, this provider divides opinion as to the quality and/or value for money that their programmes offer – there seems to be a fair number of advocates and detractors. I can’t comment on the course content or delivery, but in terms of engagement, my observation is that the students get good exposure to key tech stacks, learn some very practical skills, and they are encouraged to follow up with the industry participants. I hope all of the students manage to land the type of opportunities they are seeking as a result of completing their course.

Next week: Here We Go Again…

Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)


School Reunion

Last weekend, I attended the first official reunion lunch in Melbourne for former pupils of my old high school. On first glance, that might not seem a very remarkable event. Except that my school was in London, I left in 1979, and my fellow lunch guests left as long ago as 1959. I had never met any of them before. Yet in different circumstances, and at different times, each of us has ended up living in Australia.

Normally I’m not one to play the “old school tie” card – I don’t particularly care, and I am not really interested in, which school someone attended. In fact, having spent my high school years overseas means that here in Australia, no one can really play that card against me without seeming elitist, snobbish, or just plain foolish. Because, despite its claims to being an egalitarian country, some sections of Australian society place a great deal of importance on their private school connections. (Remember OneTel and the Cranbrook alumni?)

One of our lunchtime topics of discussion (which also touched on current geo-political affairs, the state of the entertainment industry, the economy, and the future of the planet….) was the extent to which our secondary education had formed our world outlook. The main conclusion was that although the school placed a considerable emphasis on academic standards and achievements, it was not merely a sausage factory (at least, not during our days there). The goal was to produce well-rounded, confident and curious individuals, who were encouraged to make the most of their abilities. (If the list of alumni is anything to go by, the school has certainly turned out some highly individual characters.)

I’m still in contact with a number of my contemporaries, and I try to meet up with a few of them each time I’m in London. After all these years, it’s hard to know whether our alma mater is the primary factor that still connects us, as our friendships have both endured and changed over that time. Certainly, most of us wouldn’t otherwise have met – but even before we left school, we had established common interests (especially in music) that continue to this day.

In conclusion, I would say I’m very grateful for the high school education I received, for the opportunities it gave me, and the friends I have made. And on the basis of the first reunion event that has ever been held outside the UK (as far as we are aware), it looks like my school will continue connecting me to new and interesting people.

Next week: Climate Change and Personal Choices