Peter Strong: Worker shortages are hurting Aussie businesses, but politicians aren’t talking about it this election

inflation wages election economy worker shortage small business workplace relations

Source: SmartCompany.

With all elections, it seems politicians and their parties often get messages that we in the small business world aren’t hearing. We understand the focus groups run by the parties are probably saying something different from the rest of us and this is what influences the voters. Yet it is odd they often don’t get messages we are sending loud and clear.

In this election the one message from small business that seems to be missing from all sides is the shortage of workers.

This is a huge problem and affects every business — from hospitality, service stations and hairdressers, to architects, IT experts and health workers. The shortage is made worse when current employees contract a COVID-19 variant and have to stay off work — often it isn’t one employee that gets the bug but a whole team, and the business has to close as there are no backup workers.

Yet in spite of all this, and all the messages sent by industry leaders, the political parties are still talking about all the jobs they will create if they win government. The coalition talks around 1.3 million new jobs and Labor is aiming to create 600,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector, plus more than 340,000 in the IT area. 

That’s excellent and I’ll leave others to challenge or praise those targets. But, to state the obvious, governments do not create jobs, unless they are taxpayer funded jobs.

It is businesses that create sustainable jobs and that means we need a good economy to give small business folk and directors of large companies confidence.

The issue I hear constantly is that we don’t have the people to fill those jobs. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs not filled now and — unless immigration numbers increase dramatically — those jobs will not get filled any time soon.

There are, for example, service stations that are closing early due to staff shortages; I am hearing their opening hours are now similar to what they were in the 1980s. It is the same with restaurants and cafes that either are not opening seven days a week as they once did, or closing early each night.

If small business people want to influence the policies that the winning party puts into effect, we need to let them know now that worker shortages are one of our biggest issues.

We also hear from some commentators that workers won’t take jobs due to the low wages in Australia. That is a furphy. It’s rubbish. Interestingly, even though we all want more money, it is not a complaint that comes from a majority of workers — most are okay with their wage. Rather, it is (no surprise) Labor and the unions that claim low wages.

The information from international think tanks and economic organisations is that Australian wages are internationally high. The OECD has Australia as ninth globally for the average wage, and another group (NUMBEO) has Australia second with the amount of take-home pay. Also of interest is that our cost of living, which is currently a big issue for this election, has Australia fourteenth highest in the world — which appears like a net gain for wage earners.

As has been pointed out many times before, Australia’s minimum wage is one of the highest in the world, if not the highest. Still there are those who push for a substantial increase.

Others may find different figures to the above but they all point to Australian workers having high wages and great conditions.

The issue is we cannot get the workers, even when much higher than award wages are offered. For example, some in the hospitality and restaurant sectors are offering well above the award along with sign-on and retention bonuses but still cannot get workers. 

The IT sector and other parts of the professions are cannibalising each other as they cannot get the international workers that once filled the gaps that could not be met by local professionals.

There are however, as always, sectors where wages do need to increase and that is often those dominated by women, such as aged care. So targeted sensible policies that aim to improve these areas of need are necessary. But instead we have, as always, a broad brush, emotionally generated attack on the economy and wages from some designed to create fear.

The politicians need to be made aware of these issues. 

As the election campaign continues, we are hearing many business people are still concerned about Labor’s economic credentials, and even though the Coalition’s track record around trust isn’t great — it’s awful, truth be known — their performance on the economy has been, well, world class. 

The other issue that gets little attention is the growing threat of high inflation. That’ll be an issue I will take up with industry leaders and deal with in this column before the election date.

The question remains: can we achieve high political integrity and a good economy, and which is more important? At this early part of the race the economy appears to be ahead of integrity. 

So can we make the economic debate about the real issues and not made up emotional trigger points?


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Stuart Carr
Stuart Carr
25 days ago

Peter. Good article. I raised this with your successor at COSBOA a few months ago and she told me it was not a policy priority.

Alexi Boyd
Alexi Boyd
24 days ago
Reply to  Stuart Carr

Peter – excellent article articulating the concerns of small business. Stuart – you are incorrect. We spoke in July (10months ago) about this and I concurred with your concerns. Then you emailed further raised concerns about this issue not being discussed at our summit, to which I did not respond. It is absolutely a policy priority as it is the number one issue for small businesses in every industry, across the country,

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