September 9, 2022 Opinion Piece
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Powering Australia in an Industry Cluster

By Mark Burgess, Executive Officer Energy Skills Australia

Australia’s current energy crisis is the final nail in the coffin for coal-fired electricity. It is beyond clear renewable energy is the key to reliable electricity that will create jobs and cut power bills.

The Albanese government knows this and it is why it brought its ambitious plan for Powering Australia to the election. The government has answered the cries from industry for stability and policy that will encourage further investment into emerging technologies and renewable energy.

Labor has rightly set a new target for emissions reduction of 43 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, making Australia less of a pariah on the international stage. It has also promised a $20 billion investment into the electricity grid which will be needed to connect Renewable Energy Zones (REZs) in regional areas to towns and our major cities.

The Albanese government’s plan also includes important funding for community battery projects, to store renewable electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, and the development of the country’s first National Electric Vehicle and Battery Strategies. Equally as important is the pledge to finance 10,000 new energy apprenticeships and the revitalisation of Australian manufacturing.

However, the government now needs to turn its attention to maximising the benefits of these policies.

The best place to start is in Vocational Education and Training (VET). The importance of the new framework for workforce planning, setting of occupational standards and skills acquisition cannot be understated.

As the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) evaluates applications into the competitive tender process for the proposed Industry Cluster model, it is important to note there is both an opportunity to innovate, building on the aspects of the system that are working well; as well as recognising there are flaws within the proposed design.

The major concern the energy and renewables industry have is with the proposed cluster structure itself. The fracturing of the energy related training packages, particularly electrotechnology across different cluster groupings, completely undermines the Powering Australia policy and the transition to a green economy.

As investment grows and technologies evolve, workers will increasingly require transportable skills. Basing clusters on industries, rather than occupations, will provide significant workforce mobility challenges, which may not be overcome.

We’re already seeing a shortage of skilled trades workers including electricians.

This doesn’t mean we have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to apprenticeships but we must invest further in skills training, leading to employment, to drive economic growth in the green economy. A solid foundation of theoretical off-the-job skills underpinning practical on-the-job experience is what is needed, particularly in inherently dangerous occupations such as those linked to licensed electrical trades.

Our industry must also position itself to capture technological advancements better. This could be achieved through post-trade higher level qualifications, skill sets or dare I say it, industry endorsed specialisations such as micro-credentials. For the energy sector, the emphasis must be placed on the term post-trade, that is, after workers have acquired their initial broad transportable qualification. This will almost certainly help address issues of speed to market – which will continue to be on the agenda until it is resolved.

Most importantly, for skills acquisition to be successful we need to return to a truly industry-led bipartite VET system, industry – employer and employee representatives working together in unison, as they have in the past.

Workers need to feel included and valued, knowing they are making a significant contribution too and sharing in Australia’s prosperity. Employers need to advise and invest into the skills system, giving them the confidence that it is producing workers with the skills they need for them to be successful.

For the Powering Australia plan to accomplish its objective, the industry cluster model must have the needs of industry at its heart. To foster collaboration across the electrotechnology, renewables and energy supply industries, they must be contained together in one model.

Opportunities for aspiring young people or for existing workers to take on new roles within the energy sectors must be provided. The ability to address changing workforce challenges must be led by industry.

The opportunity awaits and industry has shown it is up for the challenge.