05 August 2011

Skilling time

Amid the debates about the carbon tax, one Australian region is taking the lead in preparing for change.

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Morwell lies in the shadow of one of Victoria's four coal-powered electricity generators.

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RMIT's Peter Fairbrother and Darryn Snell with Val Prokopiv and John Parker from the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council.


Home to the state's huge brown coal deposits and four power generators, the Latrobe Valley in Victoria's south-east is one of Australia's most trade-exposed regions.

But talk on the ground is about future opportunities, rather than mourning the past.

Working closely with key stakeholders, Professor Peter Fairbrother and his RMIT University colleague, Dr Darryn Snell, are helping develop transition plans.

Professor Fairbrother is a founding member of a recently established Latrobe City Council committee which brings together the council, employers, local unions, the power industry and farming groups.

For Professor Fairbrother, who is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work in RMIT's College of Business, it is a chance to inject a robust evidence base into the policy decisions ahead.

The first step will be a comprehensive skills profile of the region. Latrobe City has a population of 75,000, largely based in four regional centres. The 2006 census showed just over half the population had no qualifications and 42.4 per cent had left school at year 10 or earlier.

But the skills audit is about more than formal qualifications. "It's about their embedded skills, the knowledge they've gained through their working lives but also outside of the workforce, volunteering for the local footy team or leading a fundraising committee at the primary school," Professor Fairbrother said.

"That kind of in-depth analysis and research is time-consuming and difficult. But the rewards are rich, because you reveal the real depth of knowledge and experience in the area."

Once a true picture of the regional skills base is uncovered, analysis of new and emerging economic opportunities follows.

Off-farm developments in the local agribusiness industries offered great potential, Agribusiness Gippsland chair, Alex Arbuthnot AM, said.

"The food production of tomorrow will be as much about processing and marketing as the actual work on the farm," he said.

"A whole range of services will be needed, from engineering to welding. Finding ways to fill these skills shortage gaps will go a long way to addressing one of the major challenges that is currently restricting the expansion of the agricultural economy."

Professor Fairbrother said: "What we need is training that enables people to work across industries.

"A welder in the power industry may not have qualifications to do welding in stainless steel, as the dairy industry needs, but it's not a big task to adapt those skills."

Having learned the lessons of power industry privatisation in the early 1990s, which caught much of the community by surprise, local unions have been deeply involved from the start of the project.

A number of education forums led by the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council and RMIT have laid a solid foundation for engaging stakeholders by building awareness of the critical need to start planning for change. GTLC secretary John Parker said the focus was on a "just transition".

"If we can get it right here and plan the way forward by bringing round the table all those affected - the workers, employers, local government, community - we'll have a model not just for coal mining regions but any area facing major change," Mr Parker said.

The Latrobe transition planning model of community education, skills analysis and skills futures is readily adaptable and has already caught the attention of the ACTU, which has begun discussions with Professor Fairbrother on spreading the work to trade-exposed areas around the country.

"The best policy is evidence-based and it is here that social and economic research can make a particular contribution," he said.

"Based on this knowledge we can identify practical and credible strategies that can smooth the transition to low-carbon but also work to revitalise this regional economy, stimulating job growth and prosperity."

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