My best budget: Sandy Chong, CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council

Budget 2022

This week SmartCompany is speaking to key members of the small business and startup communities to find out what they want to see in next week’s budget. This is the second instalment of the series, which will be published throughout the week.

As chief executive and board director of the Australian Hairdressing Council and a salon owner herself, Sandy Chong has her finger firmly on the pulse of the small business community.

With the federal budget fast approaching, she’s calling for a solution to the skills shortage across all industries, as well as for sustainability solutions.

But much of what she’s asking for comes down to removing barriers for business, rather than billions of dollars in investment.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector?

Like in so many industries, one of the major challenges facing the hair and beauty industry is finding staff, Chong says.

“We have a dire skills shortage in all trades, and in hairdressing we are desperate,” she says.

The process for hiring and sponsoring skilled migrants is “very onerous, very expensive and very complicated”.

At the same time, in a tricky economic environment it can be hard to follow the usual routes to hiring through apprenticeships, training and upskilling.

Businesses are still struggling with the effects of COVID-19, and many have also grappled with natural disasters such as fires and the recent devastating floods on the east coast.

In crisis mode, business owners find themselves with difficult decisions to make.

“When it comes to who we employ and who we let go… in recovery mode we let go of apprentices, because they’re very expensive to employ.”

Chong is also concerned about fragmentation between the state and federal governments. The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, laid this issue bare, she says.

Public health orders were announced at press conferences in various states, with details as to what they meant released much later.

Small business owners found themselves trying to adhere to rules that were vague, and that differed state-by-state.

“It just becomes a bit dysfunctional,” Chong says.

“I think that we need to have better guidance under the Commonwealth.”

What can the government do to help?

There are currently successful incentive programs in place for apprenticeships, Chong notes. But she would like to see those extended, and measures making it easier for small businesses to hire — and keep — apprentices.

Addressing the skills shortage will also mean making the immigration process much smoother, she adds. Being able to bring more people into the industry from overseas will ultimately have a positive impact on home-grown talent.

“We can only employ apprentices if we have skilled people to help transfer skills and also teach,” Chong explains.

“We don’t want people using industries as back-door visas to get into the country, but we do need quality people.”

Addressing the issue of state and federal government fragmentation, she would simply like to see a commitment to collaboration.

“Having clear messages for everybody in every state, so every industry knows what they’re meant to do, how they’re meant to do it and where to go for the information would make a lot of sense,” she says.

Chong is also personally passionate about incentivising sustainability in all industries. In the budget papers, she would like to see some definite leadership from the government on this front.

“There has to be investment into sustainability practices for each and every council in the country, and into reducing our waste dramatically.”

Do you expect to get what you want?

This year in particular, making budget predictions is tricky, Chong notes.

“You have to bear in mind that the government has paid out billions of support … That money would have been there.”

Overall, however, she is relatively optimistic. On a scale of one to 10, she rates her chances of having her wishlist granted at a seven.

When it comes to climate change, she believes the government is starting to feel the pressure, especially given the recent flooding crisis — and the costs it has incurred.

She also believes the politicians in power appreciate the need to get skilled workers into the country, and into desperate industries.

“But are they going to make it easier? I’m not sure.”

When it comes to apprenticeships, there are already overhauls to the vocational education and training systems underway, “and I think that’s going to be a positive thing”.

Will the budget affect the small business vote?

The federal election is looming just beyond the budget. So will Frydenberg’s speech sway the way the hair and beauty small business community votes?

Over the past two years, both federal politicians and the general public have become more aware of the challenges facing small business owners, Chong notes.

More than ever, this election will see small business owners asking what’s in it for them, and which government they think will offer them the most support.

That said, she says it would be prudent to remember the support that has already been offered.

Many of the measures on her wish list don’t involve billion-dollar investments. She wants to see tweaks made to policy, and better collaboration to break down some of the barriers to doing business.

“We’ve all had our hands out now for some time,” she notes.

“The future isn’t about continually putting our hand out … but we do definitely need more support in certain areas to help our businesses grow, thrive and recover.”

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