Good jobs go to waste

Re­cy­cling and the en­vi­ron­ment are growth in­dus­tries short of peo­ple, writes Jo Stud­dert

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

HOW sus­tain­able is sus­tain­abil­ity? If skills short­ages in the in­dus­try are as grim as some re­ports sug­gest, the in­dus­try will wither just for want of work­ers, not from any lack of will­ing­ness or com­mit­ment on the part of gov­ern­ments, or­gan­i­sa­tions, com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als.

Judg­ing by the num­ber of ma­jor cour­ses avail­able at Aus­tralian univer­si­ties, the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem is in full swing train­ing as many re­cy­clers of the fu­ture as it can.

Most univer­si­ties th­ese days have de­part­ments of the en­vi­ron­ment at the least. Some, such as Mac­quarie Univer­sity in Syd­ney, even have en­tire de­part­ments of sus­tain­abil­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion. ANU has an en­tire school of Re­sources, En­vi­ron­ment and So­ci­ety, and Swin­burne In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy has a Na­tional Cen­tre for Sus­tain­abil­ity.

Al­most all univer­si­ties of­fer un­der­grad­u­ate cour­ses on the en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity, ei­ther sep­a­rately or as part of a science, law or com­merce de­gree. Even more telling are the num­ber of spe­cific post­grad­u­ate cour­ses avail­able — from land man­age­ment to eco­tourism, from river restora­tion to city pol­icy and sus­tain­abil­ity in min­ing.

You can learn how to use your math­e­mat­i­cal and en­gi­neer­ing skills to de­sign more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly agri­cul­tural ma­chin­ery at the In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Sys­tems and Tech­nol­ogy within the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia, or en­rol in the Na­tional Cen­tre for Ground­wa­ter Man­age­ment at UTS. UTS also runs to its own In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Fu­tures.

Be­low this are TAFE and com­mu­nity cour­ses rang­ing from two hours to two years of­fer­ing in­for­ma­tion and train­ing on ev­ery imag­in­able en­vi­ron­men­tal topic, and an even greater num­ber that you hadn’t imag­ined, such as sus­tain­able per­ma­cul­ture de­sign. You can, for in­stance, join the Na­tional Edge Project, which of­fers an en­gi­neer­ing sus­tain­able so­lu­tions pro­gram. And then there are in­di­vid­ual com­pany ini­tia­tives for em­ploy­ees, one-off pub­lic lec­tures, neigh­bour­hood meet­ings and dozens, more like hun­dreds, of web­sites ded­i­cated to sus­tain­abil­ity and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Given this list, you might ex­pect that the skills short­ages that in­dus­try no­tices would be less trou­ble­some in ter­tiary fields such as en­gi­neer­ing and in­dus­trial chem­istry, and more ur­gent at the trades­man level.

Not so, ac­cord­ing to Richard Stan­ton, man­ager, pol­icy, at A3P, the peak body for the tim­ber plan­ta­tion, wood pro­cess­ing and pa­per mak­ing in­dus­try. ‘‘ We have short­ages right across the whole in­dus­try, and it is in both labour and in skills,’’ he says.

And it is the labour short­ages — the sim­ple ab­sence of bod­ies — that is the most trou­ble­some, Stan­ton says. ‘‘ If we have the peo­ple, we can give them the skills, train them. But you can’t train some­one who isn’t there.’’

‘‘ Our short­ages go right across the board, from peo­ple to plant the trees and drive the trucks and fork­lifts, to the ter­tiary level. We have sig­nif­i­cant short­falls of en­gi­neers and foresters, al­though not chemists so much.’’

At Visy, one of the world’s ma­jor re­cy­cling com­pa­nies, it is the same story. Visy’s di­rec­tor of re­cy­cling, Steven Boland, says: ‘‘ We just can­not get enough en­gi­neers. Visy has grown ex­po­nen­tially and so has the in­dus­try, and even though we have moved from a labour-in­ten­sive to a cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive work­place, we’ve ac­tu­ally in­creased our staff num­bers be­cause we have grown so much. But our staff now need to be more highly skilled.

We have re­trained many our man­ual labour­ers and they now op­er­ate ma­chin­ery, and some have moved up through su­per­vi­sory to man­age­ment roles. We have cadet­ship and grad­u­ate in­take pro­grams, and we train new staff to get the skills we need. But en­gi­neers are al­ways in short sup­ply.’’

It has grown so fast — go­ing from what Boland called a ‘‘ feel-good’’ en­deav­our to a to­tally com­mer­cially vi­able in­dus­try with a global mar­ket — that keep­ing up the sup­ply of skilled work­ers is a con­stant chal­lenge.

Stan­ton says that one of the strate­gies com­pa­nies have used to cover their skills short­ages has been mech­a­ni­sa­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion. ‘‘ The sawmilling in­dus­try, for in­stance, used to be heav­ily manned. Now huge com­puter-con­trolled con­vey­ors carry the loads, scan­ners as­sess each log, de­ter­mine how best to cut it, and then me­chan­i­cal saws mill it. We don’t need those labour­ers any more.’’

But the lay-offs that mech­a­ni­sa­tion caused have been taken up by the sheer growth in the whole re­cy­cling in­dus­try, so the prob­lem of skills short­ages is en­demic. A few years ago Visy com­bined two plants which had em­ployed 90 peo­ple into one new mech­a­nised plant with only 35 work­ers. ‘‘ But our over­all com­pany’s staff num­bers have in­creased by a cou­ple of hun­dred in the past few years be­cause the whole busi­ness has ex­ploded,’’ Boland says.

‘‘ The big­gest con­straint on growth in the in­dus­try is get­ting enough work­ers,’’ Stan­ton says, par­tic­u­larly in rural and re­gional ar­eas — of­ten the lo­ca­tion of re­cy­cling plants. The pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing, es­pe­cially in small towns where the young have left for the cities.

Com­pa­nies have many strate­gies to at­tract work­ers, from cadet­ships and re­train­ing to ad­ver­tis­ing blitzes us­ing the tree-change dream to get peo­ple to move to the coun­try. In to­day’s pa­per: Six-page Re­cy­cling spe­cial re­port

Pic­ture: David Crosling

Stayed on: Lina Good­man went full-time from part-time, and now helps cor­po­rate clients man­age their pa­per wastes

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