Opinion: It's time for a strategic approach to WA's workforce needs

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The Perth region is once again going through a boom. Our economy is the strongest in the nation and we’ve experienced the second highest population growth behind Canberra in the decade from 2011.

A boomtown is defined as a place experiencing economic expansion which triggers population growth. Our lived experience shows that being a boomtown is both a blessing and a curse.

In the 1970s more than 100 boomtowns in the United States were studied by academics to understand the upside and downside of growth. They found that boomtowns have four common stages: enthusiasm, uncertainty, panic and resilience.

According to the research, the first stage is the period when enthusiasm abounds with people focused on the opportunities that a buoyant economy brings with any negative impacts dismissed. A place that is booming is attractive to others and the second stage sees a growth in population that creates change. At this point some of the negative elements are realised and a pro versus anti-growth division occurs in the community. In the third stage near panic sets in when government services are overloaded, and residents become confused and angry at officials and each other. The final stage is when solutions are found and resilience shines with adaptation and unity.

The good news is that when revisited the US boomtowns were found to have adapted quite quickly and were highly functional because they had followed a basic set of principles. These included collaboration across government; a central body of research and data; intimate knowledge of industries and planning for the ebbs and flows of economic cycles; and forecasting so they could predict what was coming and plan for it accordingly.

As WA leading independent think tank, the Committee for Perth has spent over a decade researching Greater Perth’s opportunities and challenges. These have included developing scenarios for the region’s growth to 3.5 million people which is forecast by the Australian Bureau of Statistic to be around 2050. The best-case scenario ‘bright future’ articulates a Perth in which all people could find their place with no-one being left behind. In contrast the worst-case is described as ‘business as usual’ in which incrementalism prevails and nothing of consequence changes.

The current skills crisis is the focus of our most recent research study. In the resulting report Race to the Top, we recommend that Future Employment WA is established to bring together the various elements of education, training along with a population and migration plan. Our reasoning is that having a workforce comprised of locals that is supplemented by migrants is important for economic and social prosperity.

Future Employment WA would feed into the national body - Jobs and Skills Australia which will be formed to enact the recommendations arising from the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit.

In the same way that the pandemic saw government and community working together for the greater good and national cabinet making decisions in the nation’s interest, our report aims to ensure that we have readily available workers when the economy is booming with the appropriate levels of infrastructure, including housing and government services.

Without a holistic approach, WA will remain in a cycle of clambering for workers when times are good and having them retreat elsewhere when times are tough. This tactic is damaging for locals and migrants alike.

It’s time for a strategic approach to ensure we have the skilled workforce we need now and into the future.

Marion Fulker

CEO, Committee for Perth
Project Director, Race to the Top
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, University of WA

- Published in The West Australian, 19 August 2022 -

Acknowledgement of Country

The Committee For Perth acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.