News and published articles in 2018 to 2016

  • Skills shortages and connectivity in the Upper Hunter

    Wednesday, 26 September, 2018

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    Skills shortages, connectivity and patterns of travel, economic diversity and planning were all raised in a wide-ranging panel discussion at the Upper Hunter economic breakfast in September. Following are edited excerpts of our experts comments.

    Jobs – skills, education and training
    A growing proportion of Upper Hunter businesses cited finding suitable labour as a key constraint on their business. That is according to a survey by the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre in June 2018.

    Skills shortages were a key issue discussed by the panel. The SEEK website advertised 230 positions available in the Upper Hunter on the date of the breakfast. That is according to panellist Geoff Crews, Managing Director of Forsythes Recruitment.

    “One-third of those vacancies are for operators, and another third are in trades,” he said. “These very real skills shortages in trades and non-trade positions are partly caused by changing aspirations of young people.”

    Fewer are interested in getting into those areas now, he explained. A short-term solution is difficult to see, as many positions require years of preparation.

    Cam Halfpenny, Bengalla Mining Company’s CEO, agreed.

    “It is one thing to train an operator – you can do that in two or three weeks. But training a fitter or an electrician takes years,” he said. “Those skills underpin a lot of our industries, not only mining.”

    Bengalla has been offering scholarships and apprenticeships to encourage young people to take up mining jobs. They also support school programs that provide opportunities to learn about different career paths.

    “It is important for employers to invite students onto sites to have a look at what a surveyor or a farmer does,” Halfpenny said. “We have a diversity of roles and job sets available in the region. We need to plan a way to connect our kids with them, so that they can see what they might be interested in.”

    The mining and agricultural industries are cyclical by nature, Halfpenny explained. Effective business planning ensures they can continue to operate through the cycle.

    “We are blessed here in the Upper Hunter. A lot of our mineral resources sit at the bottom of the global cost curve. These coal mines should be the last ones in the world to close provided they are managed effectively. It is a matter of deciding, that is what we are going to do. If we need to upgrade the technology in order to achieve it, whatever we need to do, we do it with a strategic mind-set.”

    Developments in digital technology and increasing automation in agriculture and mining are likely to attract young people to the Upper Hunter to work, rather than deter them, according to Crews.

    “Young people love digitisation and automation. While it may eliminate some of the traditional jobs, it is not going to be feared by young people. I think it is quite exciting and key to attracting young people to the area.”

    Another Upper Hunter skills shortage was identified by panellist Elizabeth Bate, Principal of Muswellbrook High School. Her school was having difficulty attracting skilled staff to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects in an innovative and productive way.

    “We are future focussed,” she said. “Most recently we have worked with the University of Newcastle in a Hunter-wide program. It has raised awareness, amongst girls in particular, about how to pursue, and persist at, acquiring STEM skills.”

    The program has produced great results for the school. They had previously been unable to sustain a Chemistry class and were lagging in Physics outcomes. They have now boosted numbers in their Chemistry class. They are also offering two STEM electives in Year 9 next year.

    “The tide is shifting,” Bate said. “People are aware that education has changed, and that it is about getting some real resources and skills here in the Upper Hunter.”

    Infrastructure - connectivity
    How new infrastructure can enhance connectivity was discussed at the breakfast. Dr Anthea Bill, HRF Centre’s Lead Economist, presented travel-to-work data from the 2016 Census. The data show whether a local government area (LGA) is a net ‘importer’ or ‘exporter’ of workers.

    Singleton has the highest share of in-commuters, followed by Muswellbrook. These figures tend to reflect the availability of jobs in these LGAs. It may also be influenced by the increased connectivity provided by the Hunter Expressway. It allows Singleton and Muswellbrook workers to have residential options outside these LGAs. The Upper Hunter LGA has a substantially lower rate of in-commuting, reflecting its relatively small pool of jobs.

    Singleton’s share of in-commuters is higher than in Newcastle or Maitland LGAs. In contrast, over half of Maitland’s employed population work outside the LGA. This rate is higher than for the Newcastle LGA (31%). Dr Bill said that Maitland’s liveability, relative affordability and geographical position have likely contributed.

    “The opening of the Hunter Expressway in 2014 helped to reduce travel times and increase connectivity between the Upper Hunter, Newcastle and Sydney.”

    The Expressway also opened up opportunities for young people to return to the Upper Hunter, according to Bate.

    “A lot of young people are coming back into our area. That is a positive note for the Upper Hunter. They are often very loyal to their families and to the region they have grown up in. If the jobs are here, I have seen that they will come back.”

    Innovation, change and planning
    Dr Bill stated that long-term business expectations of the regional economy have stayed steady at an elevated level since June 2016. This level of confidence coincides with improvements in the price of thermal coal. Short-term business expectations of the economy jumped in the six months to December to the highest value on record.

    “The greater improvement in confidence in the short-term regional outlook, compared to the long-term, reflects a degree of uncertainty around whether movements in global coal prices will be sustained,” she said. “The region’s success in capitalising on the resources boom means that business-as-usual stays as a winning formula.”

    Dr Bill explained that this attitude creates a risk that opportunities for regional economic diversification might be missed. One such opportunity is Ethtec’s collaboration with Muswellbrook Shire Council, which could lead to a national bio-renewables hub.

    “We need to ensure that opportunities to build and enhance the region’s sustainable competitive advantage are not missed.”

    Data presented last quarter show that dependence on mining within the region had not greatly changed from 2013 to 2016, Dr Bill stated. Greater economic diversification would increase the Upper Hunter’s resilience and provide a buffer to the cyclical nature of the resources cycle.

    “The lower Australian dollar favours the development of regional tourism and agriculture,” she said.

    Dr Gary White, NSW Chief Planner, agreed that the Upper Hunter is well positioned to diversify its economy. Speaking on the breakfast panel, he identified tourism, agriculture, engineering, agricultural technology, and education and training as areas of opportunity to build on. He also warned against ‘legacy bias’.

    “A business-as-usual approach could limit the opportunities presented by change and innovation,” he said. “We need to stop looking through the rear-vision mirror for solutions based in the past. Look through the windscreen at what is in front of us, and make your decisions based on those opportunities.”

    He explained that people continue to talk about the Hunter as several stories of different parts.

    “It is one story about the whole and not a lot of stories competing against each other,” he said. “The recent release of the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan should be leveraged by the Upper Hunter.”

    “Newcastle is the only Australian city, outside the capitals, to have a metropolitan plan. Connectivity improvements and the changing metropolitan fabric will provide opportunities to the surrounding region.”

    View breakfast presentations by Dr Bill and Dr White

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  • Smarter look at second cities

    Monday, 24 September, 2018

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    Next month I will host a timely international forum in Newcastle focused on ‘second cities’.

    The Second Cities: Smaller and Smarter Symposium comes as Australia’s population reaches 25 million people, with 10 million living in either Sydney or Melbourne. While these metropolitan areas continue to thrive economically, residents and businesses face congestion, challenging access to jobs and services, and reduced housing affordability.

    Outside the major state capitals, 31 Australian cities have a population greater than 50,000, according to the Regional Australia Institute (RAI). RAI states that such regional cities are free of many of the challenges facing the major capitals. They cite lower rates of crime, less congestion and reduced inequality as factors that make smaller cities highly productive and great places to live.

    The Second Cities: Smaller and Smarter Symposium is part of a growing call for acknowledgement by government, industry and the community of the role of Australia’s smaller cities in contributing to the nation’s prosperity.

    As a passionate Novocastrian, I am committed to better planning for our city’s future. I recently chaired an inquiry by the Committee for Sydney that resulted in the ‘Sandstone Mega-region’ report. Looking at international best practice, the report envisions treating Sydney, Wollongong, the Central Coast and Newcastle as elements of a single ‘megalopolis’ in terms of planning, infrastructure, and connectivity.

    A leader in Australia in promoting the second cities agenda is the Committee for Geelong. They have delivered the Winning From Second report, which reveals the characteristics, challenges and opportunities of comparable cities in Europe and the USA. This research underscores the need for greater policy and planning for second cities in Australia at the state and national levels. A national campaign for a Second City Policy Framework was launched by the Committee for Geelong in July, with a Newcastle delegation attending and a vote of support from the City of Newcastle.

    The Second Cities: Smaller and Smarter symposium builds on this new initiative. The symposium is being coordinated by the Hunter Research Foundation Centre in partnership with Hunter Water, AECOM and the Hunter Development Corporation.

    The symposium will bring together experts and leading practitioners on themes of innovation, infrastructure and liveability. Futurist and business adviser, Bernard Salt, is the keynote speaker at the symposium dinner.

    Set in and around the University’s landmark NeW Space city campus, the symposium will showcase Newcastle as an emerging global second city. The symposium will conclude with participants summarising insights and outcomes to create an action plan.

    Kyle Loades
    Host, Second Cities Symposium

    This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on 18 September 2018

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  • Jobs, infrastructure and liveability in Upper Hunter examined

    Wednesday, 19 September, 2018

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    DOWLOAD THE PUBLICATION | SPEAKER PRESENTATIONS

    The Singleton and Muswellbrook local government areas (LGAs) are centres for employment in the Upper Hunter. However, many of their workers live elsewhere, according to analysis released at the Upper Hunter economic breakfast at Muswellbrook RSL on Wednesday, 19 September.

    Dr Anthea Bill, lead economist for Hunter Research Foundation Centre, says that journey-to-work data from the 2016 Australian Census shows that, in the Upper Hunter, Singleton has the highest proportion of commuters arriving there to work.

    “A range of factors, including jobs, infrastructure and liveability, influence where people work and live,” Dr Bill said. “We examine the economic and demographic data to unpack how some of the key factors interact, and how they play out in the Upper Hunter.”

    Dr Bill explained that the Centre’s Upper Hunter Pulse surveys show that business and household confidence in the Upper Hunter economy remained optimistic in the June 2018 quarter. The figures are above long-term averages.

    “Likely drivers of this regional buoyancy are the continued rally in global coal prices and sustained improvements in labour and housing markets. There is also a strong international economic context,” she stated.

    Gary White, Chief Planner for NSW, spoke at the breakfast on regional planning. He was joined by an expert panel to discuss jobs, regional skill sets, commuting and liveability. The panel comprised:

    • Geoff Crews, Managing Director, Forsythes Recruitment
    • Cam Halfpenny, CEO, Bengalla Mining Company
    • Elizabeth Bate, Principal, Muswellbrook High School

    This event and the Upper Hunter Region Economic Indicators research program are supported by Bengalla Mining Company.

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  • Symposium to showcase Newcastle as a global 'second city'

    Wednesday, 8 August, 2018

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    Planning is underway for an international symposium focusing on ‘second cities’, to be held in Newcastle from 29-31 October. The Second Cities: smaller and smarter forum will bring together national and international expertise. It is being organised by the HRF Centre and is supported by a range of key regional stakeholders in the business and government sectors.

    What is a second city?

    Where Newcastle might recognise itself as a ‘major regional centre’, internationally it would be seen as a ‘second city’. Second cities represent a significant proportion of the world’s people, economy and activities.

    Second cities generally house between 50,000 and 1 million people. They have frequently undergone a planned economic transformation and are contributing significantly to the national economy. As well as easing pressure on their capital city counterparts, second cities are often recognised for providing strategic gateways to regional economies.

    Newcastle offers a compelling example of an emerging second city. Strategic investment across key sectors is earning Greater Newcastle a reputation as one of Australia’s more dynamic metropolitan areas. For example, more $1.5 billion in development applications have been approved in the past year in the Newcastle local government area.

    Since the closure of BHP’s steelmaking facility in 1999, Greater Newcastle has reshaped itself economically and socially. Cranes on the horizon are evidence that it may be undergoing another renaissance, driven by public and private infrastructure investment. The city is also a gateway to the Hunter – Australia’s most economically productive region.

    These features make Newcastle ideally positioned to host an event focusing on the reality and opportunities of a transitioning second city.

    Symposium topics and structure

    The Second Cities Symposium: smaller and smarter will provide an international platform for airing and contesting leading contemporary thought in urban and regional planning and development. It will offer the opportunity to explore aspects of the important city-region nexus of economic flows and travel for work and recreation.

    Drawing on local, national and global expertise, the symposium will provide a forum for analysing, debating and informing thinking on the evolution of second cities. It will feature internationally recognised experts, panel sessions, walking workshops, and ‘clinics’ to address ‘wicked problems’.

    Sessions are designed to explore innovation in urban design, city and regional planning, economic development, technology development, infrastructure, innovation, liveability and wellbeing.

    Timely – campaign for second cities policies

    July marked the launch of a campaign for national ‘second cities’ policies, headed by the Committee for Geelong (CfG). CfG commissioned research into examples of good practice in the development of second cities in Australia and overseas. Their Winning from Second report highlights the opportunity for Geelong (with partners) to advocate at the state and national levels for second city policy frameworks.

    The University of Newcastle has accepted an invitation from the Committee for Geelong to collaborate. Researchers will work with counterparts at Deakin and Wollongong universities to further develop the evidence base for the development of the policy framework. Newcastle City Council is supporting the framework development, pledging $25,000 toward the research report in a mayoral minute.

    Advancing the conversation – paired forums

    Greater Newcastle can also contribute to raising the profile of second cities at a state and national level through advocacy, and by facilitating national and international discussion. The symposium, Second Cities: smaller and smarter, being organised by the HRF Centre, is one example of work in this area.

    The Centre is engaging with the Committee for Geelong and key local organisations, such as Hunter Water, AECOM, and Hunter Development Corporation, on the development of the symposium.

    The symposium will lead into a related international conference, the Affordable Living in Sustainable Cities International Congress. The HRF Centre is cooperating with Congress organisers, Compass Housing, to co-promote these important and complementary events.

    Make a difference

    There are still sponsorship opportunities available for the Second Cities Symposium. To align your organisation with this strategic event, click on the link below to contact Kim Britton.

    Stay tuned for more on the Second Cities symposium and the international congress. 

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  • Partnership to help create thriving Upper Hunter communities

    Wednesday, 8 August, 2018

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    The Upper Hunter economic breakfasts will now be offered as a free event again thanks to a new partnership between Bengalla Mining Company and the HRF Centre at the University of Newcastle.

    A gift from Bengalla each year over the next five years will support the Centre’s Upper Hunter economic indicators research program. The program includes the twice-yearly surveys of businesses and households, analysis of trends in key economic indicators, an array of engagement activities and the breakfast presentations and panel sessions.

    The Upper Hunter economic breakfasts have been held twice a year in Muswellbrook since 2002. The series aims to build capacity in Upper Hunter businesses, social services, community organisations and schools. Offering the event free of charge is expected to make the breakfasts accessible to a wider audience, including small businesses, community groups, and secondary and tertiary students.

    Thanking Bengalla for their contribution to the Upper Hunter region, Professor Will Rifkin, HRF Centre Director said:

    “We welcome you as long-term partners in research and engagement on the Upper Hunter economy. Bengalla and the HRF Centre can now build the knowledge, connections, capacity and resilience of small businesses, households and community organisations in the region.”

    “This program partnership enables Bengalla to boost its contribution to the community’s knowledge base and professional networks. Strengthening of the region’s ‘social capital’ will contribute to jobs, new businesses and a better future for the region’s young people.”

    The HRF Centre reports on the results of its unique Upper Hunter Pulse surveys at the economic breakfast events. The surveys of 300 households and 300 businesses are conducted every six months in the Singleton, Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter Shires. The survey captures a range of economic and social data. The HRF Centre also analyses data from government and private sources to provide an overview of how families and businesses in the region are travelling.

    Cam Halfpenny, CEO of Bengalla Mining Company, will join a panel discussion at the September Upper Hunter economic breakfast. The panel will discuss liveability, infrastructure and jobs in the Upper Hunter.

    The HRF Centre looks forward to working with the Bengalla team, and their community partners, over the next five years, to help Upper Hunter communities to thrive. 

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  • Hunter businesses heard in Parliamentary hearing

    Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

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    Are Australia’s free trade agreements sufficiently accessible and useful to Hunter small to medium enterprises?

    Hunter-based business, government and industry group representatives shared their experiences in a roundtable discussion in Newcastle on 1 August.

    The discussion was recorded for Hansard. It will help to inform the Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s inquiry into Access to free trade agreements (FTAs) by small and medium sized enterprises.

    The HRF Centre facilitated the event. Professor Will Rifkin, HRF Centre Director, and Dr Anthea Bill, Lead Economist, set the scene for visiting members of the Trade Sub-Committee*. They provided a presentation on the Hunter regional economy and insights on local businesses.

    Dr Bill said that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are prevalent in the Hunter. Two-thirds of local businesses employ fewer than four people.

    “The wind back in mining investment had a greater impact on the regional economy than the 1999 closure of BHP’s steel making facility,” Dr Bill revealed. “It resulted in a five per cent fall in employment in the region in 2013. While employment has since recovered, it demonstrates the Hunter economy’s vulnerability to the boom-and-bust cycles of mining.”

    Professor Rifkin explained that the development of foreign trade for Hunter businesses depends on key transport infrastructure projects.

    “We have heard about potential advantages of a very fast train link to Sydney, a container terminal in the Port of Newcastle and direct international air connections. The potential for such developments were discussed at the Hunter Economic breakfast last week,” he said. “There are innovative SMEs taking advantage of opportunities presented by free trade agreements. They could benefit from improved connectivity to major global markets.”

    Participants in the roundtable sessions represented a cross-section of industry sectors. They included the Port of Newcastle, Hunternet, Hunter Business Chamber and Australian Industry Group. Executives from 10 local businesses added insights from their experiences.

    Key points made by participants at the roundtable included:

    • establishing a one-stop-shop for information and training for Hunter SMEs on the advantages and opportunities presented by FTEs;
    • taking a more holistic approach when negotiating FTAs, that includes logistics and supply chains, to maximise opportunities for SMEs to take advantage of agreements;
    • make it more difficult to import finished products into Australia to prevent the erosion of intellectual property;
    • ensure that FTAs include bilateral trade agreements to enable Australian importers, as well as exporters, to benefit from them;
    • improve publicity about the opportunities presented by Australia’s FTAs; 
    • SMEs negotiating foreign trade encounter more substantial hurdles than tariffs, which are often not covered by FTAs; and
    • provide more business advisers to assist SMEs to negotiate FTAs, such as those provided as part of the Government’s Entrepeneurs’ Programme.

    Dr Greg Whiteley, Managing Director of Whiteley Corporation, complimented the committee members for coming to Newcastle.

    “I thoroughly endorse this initiative of the Joint Standing Committee, to enable businesses to be heard,” he said. “The value of direct consultation should never be understated.”

    The HRF Centre will continue to facilitate inquiries and forums that enable Hunter voices to be heard on issues of regional and national significance.

    Caption: Dr Anthea Bill and Prof. Will Rifkin present at the inquiry to (L-R) Bert van Manen MP, Ted O’Brien MP (Chair), Andrew Dawson (Inquiry Secretary) and Graham Perrett MP (Deputy Chair)

    A briefing paper on FTEs, prepared for the roundtable participants by University of Newcastle finance student Logan O’Halloran during his internship with HRF Centre, can be downloaded by clicking on the link below.

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