Monday, 25 November, 2019

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Changing the narrative on Australia’s regions - in terms of jobs, the ability to absorb population growth and the affordability of housing - is the aim of new research from Regional Australia Institute (RAI), a Newcastle audience heard from Liz Ritchie. 

Ritchie, co-CEO of RAI, was guest speaker at the HRF Centre’s Hunter Economic breakfast on 15 November. She said that the RAI are moving from a focus on research to greater regional engagement and ‘activation’, that is, stimulating action as a result of the research findings.

Part of the new focus is the Future of Jobs research released by RAI in August this year. Ritchie says this study aims to ‘bust myths’ about a lack of opportunities in regions. RAI have started a jobs campaign to highlight opportunities for employment in regions, highlighting the 48,000 current job vacancies. That figure should be doubled to give a more realistic assessment of jobs, Ritchie said.

“The dominant narrative had been that there are no regional opportunities,” Ritchie stated. “That is not the case. There is immense opportunity.”

The RAI has also examined the rapidly changing nature of work. Knowledge sector jobs in health and education are by far the fastest growing segments around Australia. Of the 13,000 jobs vacant in NSW, the highest number is in professions. This story is emulated across the country, Ritchie explained. 

RAI has created a Regional Jobs Vacancy Map, an interactive online tool using publicly available data. The RAI tool shows nearly 3,700 jobs available in Newcastle and the Hunter region. The job numbers broadly correlate with population growth figures, Ritchie said. The impact of population changes on job vacancies have been more pronounced in inland and other regions than in the Hunter.

“The Hunter is ahead of curve,” Ritchie told the 260-strong breakfast audience. “You are quite unique in that the Hunter’s trend shift, from technical and trades to professional, occurred 10 years ago. This shift has put you in a better position, as you were able to pivot earlier and plan for some of the changes befalling the region.”

Other regions, for example Riverina/Murray, had seen the shift from labouring to professional employment occurring only in the last five years. It has been more difficult for them to transition their workforce capabilities and fill those jobs. Some regions are experiencing 10 to 20 per cent growth in vacancies while unemployment continues to rise. So, there is a mismatch between capabilities in the workforce and the skills required. Many regional localities are also experiencing population loss.

“Regional job vacancies are growing faster than metropolitan vacancies,” Ritchie stated. “There are distinct challenges in regional Australia that are not well understood. It is RAI’s role to help people understand those issues.”

Ritchie also discussed the RAI’s recently released report, Regional population growth, are we ready?

The report addresses predictions by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) that Australia’s population could increase by 75 per cent by 2056. The RAI had modelled different scenarios of settlement. Under their business as usual case – the ABS predictions currently relied upon by NSW Government and other planners – the majority of growth will occur in the outer suburbs of capital cities. Congestion in Sydney would increase by 60 per cent, Ritchie said. She invited the audience to consider the implications for liveability in Australia’s cities.

The RAI report offers alternative scenarios for population growth, with settlement distributed to regional Australia. They explored where the five-million people predicted to flood into Sydney’s west could reside in future if a significant percentage were dispersed to the regions. One scenario would see the Hunter’s population swell to 1.9 million.

The research modelled the impact on incomes, house prices, unemployment, and commute distances. House prices and commute distances would be better in Sydney using the distributed population model. For the regions, incomes would be slightly higher, and there would be a slight increase in house prices. This outcome scenario would retain regional advantage over the cities in terms of the ratio of house price to income.

“All in all, the economic impacts [of dispersal] are not too damaging,” Ritchie said. “From an economic perspective, the outer suburbs of our capital cities resemble regional centres. There are many similarities, and those similarities are not well understood.”

Average income levels are comparable, with a difference of less than 10 per cent between outer Sydney and the Hunter region, the research shows. Employment rates are identical, and there is only a small differential in productivity.

Employment is a compelling reason for people to move to regions, Ritchie stated. The reasons they stay, however, are quality of life and the cultural identity of regional Australia.

“There has never been a national campaign to promote the opportunities that exist in regional Australia,” she explained. “At the RAI, we want to create one. Think about that national campaign and the opportunity to change the narrative on regional Australia and why it is so important.” 

Download Liz Ritchie’s presentation.

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