A country of makers

I want to chime in on the debate over the abolition of 457 visas in Australia. The issue surrounding 457s is a hard, and emotive topic. On one hand, Australia needs some of the intensely smart and hardworking professionals to help us with our competitiveness and sometimes to shake up whatever complacency that exists. On the other hand, Australia also needs to give a chance to the many smart, hardworking and younger professionals an opportunity to grow into more senior roles.

Now there is no doubt there are instances of visa abuses. We hear of instances of people fast tracking permanent residency through working in fast food restaurants. Let’s get that discussion out of the way. The government can fix that and it needs to fix that.

One of the ethos of an innovation nation is that we need to be good makers, and not just good consumers. We need people who work in transformative industries to come and live and work here.

However, we are also already a nation of makers in another sense. We have a world class education system, that produces thousands of young engineers — electrical, mechanical, civil. We produce so many of these that there are not enough work to go around for them, and yet we constantly find ourselves short on talent. Why is that?

Speak to any plumber or electrical contractor and you will get a sense of how the situation has changed over the past decades. Many speak about how apprenticeships are falling by the wayside, and hiring apprentices slow them down. Essentially what we have in Australia is a wicked problem. We need experienced professionals, but we can’t create experienced professionals ourselves because our businesses need to constantly compete against experienced professionals brought in from overseas, and they can’t afford to slow down their pace.

We got to this because we have a broken value chain. Years of policy has encouraged young people to spend more time in university, and spend more money at university, but the industry does not value nor buy it. University used to be an excellent way of signalling suitability, but the shortage no longer lies there. We now hear confirmation that companies are shifting their hiring to look beyond the degree qualification, and while it causes some uncertainty to many nervous graduates, we should embrace it. This is the lean movement taken to its core. Why study for 4 years and take a gamble that you have the necessary skills to get you what you want in the workplace? Why not iterate via a series of shorter programs, and shift directions quickly and you learn about the marketplace and what it wants?

There is another issue that remains to be addressed. Businesses in Australia need to be makers too. In this new model, the value chain continuum continues past tertiary education into the industry.

If businesses continue to make short term decisions that buy off-the-shelf and ready-made experts from overseas, we sacrifice the our long term viability because of the sheer wastage of training our next generation for 16 years, only to ignore them when they are ready to serve.