New network takes aim at natural disasters and workforce needs

While many governments struggle to predict workforce needs, Australia’s new tropical alliance is giving it a crack

January 6, 2022
Map of Australia
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A new Australian university network has vowed to produce a “workforce strategy” to address labour market needs across a remote tropical region as big as India.

The Northern Australia Universities Alliance, which brings together Australia’s tropically based institutional trio of Central Queensland, Charles Darwin and James Cook universities, has set itself the challenge of forecasting employment trends across one of the world’s more forbidding landscapes.

The strategy will track and supply the giant region’s labour market needs in health, social services, education, agriculture, mining, renewable energy, the environment, disaster resilience, tourism and digital capabilities.

It is one plank of an ambitious collaborative programme that also includes undertaking joint research, seeking combined funding opportunities and delivering integrated courses in indigenous leadership.

James Cook University vice-chancellor Sandra Harding said her experience as a member of the Queensland government’s skills advisory board had taught her how “devilishly difficult” it was to predict future requirements for workers. But it was important to try, in a region suffering a “maldistribution of professionals”.

“There’s a dearth of professional knowledge, expertise and human capital…across the broader north,” she said. “Without [a workforce strategy], we’re always going to be limited to achieve the sort of economic prosperity and community well-being that the north deserves.”

Professor Harding said the three universities still needed to “flesh out” an approach to anticipating skills needs in a vast geographic region with small populations and environmental and connectivity challenges.

“How do we collectively tap into industry and the services sectors in particular…to come to grips with getting ready for tomorrow? If we can’t do something beyond the scale of an industry, a single university or a particular community, we’re never going to realise the value that northern Australia represents.”

The alliance members will also work collaboratively on natural disasters, complementing the recent announcement that the three universities will focus on water security issues in partnership with the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia.

Professor Harding said “climate disturbances” common to tropical Australia, such as cyclones, floods and bushfires, were set to intensify. “Each of the three universities attends to those things in different ways. We have different infrastructure that can inform government, public policy and community responses and community preparedness.

“We live in the north. This is our home. We confront the same sorts of challenges. The idea is to see what we can do collectively. It has to be the case that we will be able to deliver more collectively than individually.”

While the three institutions will consider offering joint education programmes, the alliance will also focus on “not doubling up where it’s not sensible to do so”, Professor Harding said. “It may well be that we can leverage each other through sharing some curriculum, courseware or, indeed, courses themselves.”

While the region’s vastness made it imperative for all three universities to offer core courses, she said it might make sense to have individual institutions “taking the lead” in niche areas, just as universities divvied up some language teaching to maximise opportunities to learn foreign tongues.

“All three of us are committed to ensuring that students in the north writ large have a very rich and productive educational experience. If we can add to that by providing access to areas that we might not be offering, we should be open to that.”

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