Australia seeks workers to meet boom

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Australia is facing a critical shortage of workers as record numbers of large natural gas and mining projects are built to service the energy and steelmaking needs of China, Japan and South Korea, its top three export markets.

Deloitte Access Economics, an advisory group, estimates the value of Australian investment projects either under way or in planning has reached A$777bn ($832bn).

“What is driving this is the sheer amount of profit that mining companies can earn with commodity prices being so high,” said David Rumbens, a director at DAE. “It makes new investment projects irresistible.”

“A decade ago, mining investment in Australia was barely half the level of manufacturing investment. Now it is more than five times the level of manufacturing investment,” he said.

The biggest single resource project is the A$43bn Chevron-operated Gorgon liquefied natural gas project, while US$25bn could be spent on the Wheatstone gas project.

BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group, Australia’s top three iron ore exporters, are also spending tens of billions developing their mine, rail and port operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, while at least A$50bn has been earmarked for LNG projects in Queensland.

The government of Western Australia says the state could face a shortage of 150,000 skilled workers by 2017, while the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia this month warned that an additional 34,000 workers were needed in the next 20 months for iron ore and LNG projects in the Pilbara region.

Australia’s unemployment rate of 4.9 per cent, a little more than half that of many advanced nations, is regarded as close to full employment by many economists.

But Julia Gillard, prime minister, recently vowed to get welfare dependants back into the workforce.

The estimated 800,000 on disability support pensions as well as the youth and long-term unemployed are being targeted, while the government also wants to increase the participation rate of part-time and casual workers.

“Every Australian should pull his or her own weight. It’s not fair for taxpayers to pay for someone who can support themselves,” Ms Gillard said in a speech on April 13.

Mr Rumbens added that worker shortages would fuel wage price inflation. “We need to get as many people as we can but there will be questions about whether we can get enough skilled workers.”

To help plug the shortfall, the national government has joined up with industry to develop an Enterprise Migration Scheme to fast-track foreign workers for large resource projects during their peak construction phases.

Western Australia will also lead a government and industry delegation to the UK in July to attract migrants. “The UK has a lot of attractive, skilled and well-educated workers that speak English,” one mining executive said.

Reg Howard-Smith, chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia, said truck drivers could earn A$150,000 a year.

The delegation will search for geologists and engineers through to accountants, tradespeople and workers from the oil and gas industries.

“Our traditional markets [for workers] are the UK, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand but the UK is always the first choice,” Mr Howard-Smith said. “We are also recruiting [English-speaking] workers from India and the Philippines.”

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