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Queensland takes the lead on clean energy workforce planning

Over the next three years, the Queensland Government is projecting growth of more than 10 per cent in employment, equating to 280,000 additional jobs. These are expected to be equally split between the trades, graduate and post-graduate jobs, and unskilled labour.

Yet the state already faces skills shortages. The latest Skills Priority List, published by the National Skills Commission in June 2021, showed regional and state-wide shortages of engineers and those working in the electrical and mechanical trades across Queensland.

This is being observed in the clean energy industry nationally too. Key occupations across solar, wind, battery, hydro and transmission are in high demand. Job advertisements are staying open longer, the calibre of candidates is dropping and an increasing number of positions remain unfilled.

With national unemployment levels bubbling below 5 per cent, the Queensland Government recently convened the Queensland Workforce Summit 2022.

The event brought together key stakeholders in the state’s next decade of employment – strategic industries, education and training institutions, and government – to work collaboratively in identifying the challenges and opportunities facing Queensland’s workforce planning.

The outcomes from the summit are intended to provide input into the development of the Government’s Workforce Strategy between now and 2032 – presumably right up to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics.

Jobs and skills are high on the Queensland Government’s agenda, as evidenced by the presence at the event of the Premier, her Deputy, the Treasurer, the Minister for Training and Skills Development and the Minister for Energy, Renewables and Hydrogen.

Green hydrogen, and by extension renewable energy, are particularly high on the government’s jobs and skills agenda, which was seen in the themes of the panel presentations and discussions at the event.

As Queensland embarks on a target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and aims to lead Australia in renewable hydrogen production by 2030, there will be a substantial demand for skilled and unskilled workers to design, construct and operate those industries.

Many of the design and construction skills that will support those efforts are the same skills that will be needed to support public infrastructure projects such as the delivery of the 2032 Olympics.

In February this year, shovels hit the ground in the first stage of Fortescue Future Industries’ (FFI) Green Energy Manufacturing Centre in Gladstone. FFI claims that the centre will create more than 100 construction jobs and up to 50 ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance. However, and more importantly, according to Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles, the centre is expected to support several hundred indirect jobs.

Given the current nationwide shortage of workers and the near-term rollout of renewable energy zones in New South Wales and Victoria, plus new transmission across the entire National Electricity Market, there is likely to be strong competition for skilled and unskilled workers between states over the next decade. The Queensland Government will likely be promoting the local tropical climate and relaxed lifestyle to attract workers. Huge investments into renewables in the Asia Pacific region suggest that Australia is not well placed to rely on bringing in workers from neighbouring countries.

The surest path for Australia is to do what Queensland is advocating and invest now in career pathways and training that supports growing and emerging industries. A key theme of the summit was a focus on place-based approaches. This involves starting with local communities and proposed industries, mapping the supply of and demand in both people and skills, designing a workforce plan that can guide education and training organisations to deliver tailored products and services, and providing facilitation that bridges the community and industry needs.

Nonetheless, even the best planning cannot directly map the future. For that reason, we must support an agile education and training system and take a view of workforce development that transcends state borders.

Furthermore, place-based approaches can only go so far in a market as constrained as Australia’s. For some initiatives to make economic sense, they need to be applied at scale. For example, it does not make sense for all local registered training organisations to provide multi-million dollar wind towers or transmission towers for training purposes. The Queensland Government recognised this when it invested $17 million in the Pinkenba Renewable Energy Training Facility.

Queensland seems to be putting its hand up to lead the nation in workforce planning over the next decade. In realising this dream, targeted conversations with the other states and territories will be critical. Thinking national and acting local will be key to ensuring a safe, skilled, agile and mobile clean energy workforce. This is true for all states and territories, not just Queensland.