Good jobs go to waste
Recycling and the environment are growth industries short of people, writes Jo Studdert
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
Stayed on: Lina Goodman went full-time from part-time, and now helps corporate clients manage their paper wastes