Chronic labour shortages in resource-rich Western Australia could put mining projects at risk, as the state struggles to plug a shortfall of skilled workers set to balloon to 150,000 by 2017, the region's jobs minister said on Monday.
"I genuinely think that if you do not take drastic action to ensure that we address the labour force needs of Western Australia, some projects will be at risk," Peter Collier, Western Australia's Minister for Training and Workforce Development, said in an interview.
Mr. Collier was speaking at the start of an eight-day drive in Britain and Ireland to promote job opportunities in Western Australia to skilled workers, from restaurant managers to mining engineers, hoping to escape straightened circumstances at home.
"I'd like to think we will get there in terms of the mega-projects, but there are a lot of medium [sized] projects as well, and also the labour shortages we are talking about transcend the entire community," he said.
Major projects under consideration or already underway in Western Australia include expansions of BHP Billiton's and Rio Tinto's Western Australian iron ore operations.
Mr. Collier called for a more flexible approach to Australia's visa system from central government, including cutting red tape for areas in dire need of workers.
Workers from Britain and Ireland, following an old tradition of migrants who were among Australia's first settlers, currently account for almost a third of the migrant population.
The resources industry, riding a wave of high commodity prices, has roughly $400-billion in new projects on the drawing board in Australia and, along with the construction industry, will need an additional 260,000 workers over the next five years, according to government estimates.
Western Australia alone has more than $242 billion (U.S.) of resource and infrastructure projects planned, the state said, roughly half of that in mining – mostly in iron ore – and the remaining slice in natural gas.
But the region, which makes up a third of the Australian land mass but is home to only 10 per cent of its population, is well short of the workers it needs to feed the resources industry and to replace an aging mining and construction workforce – not to mention cater for other sectors growing alongside, from restaurants and hotels to hospitals and schools.
"When you have a resources boom it would be logical to [think] you'd have all the workers you need – well, we don't," Collier told Reuters, adding the state was also suffering from a "crowding out" effect, as workers in the south west moved north to the Pilbara or the Kimberley to cash in on the boom, leaving job openings across the board.
Collier – armed with glossy DVD footage of Western Australia's white beaches and glowing testimonials from happy UK migrants – said the work he and his delegation will do this week may focus on skilled workers, but the region also needs unskilled and semi-skilled workers, like apprentices.
"We are going to need a robust, dynamic and versatile workforce. We are facing the prospect of being about 150,000 workers short, and that makes the situation parlous."
Western Australia's government has set up a "skilled migration portal" for future migrants, with details on job prospects, rents and salaries.
That, Collier said, would help avoid disappointment from potential migrants lured by tales of truck drivers on six figure salaries to find the reality of a gruelling life in the Outback a little too tough.