It was a privilege to attend the Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra earlier this month, which hosted 142 delegates, including members of National Cabinet, the state and territory premiers and chief ministers, industry groups, unions, employers, community representatives and advocates. Over half the delegates were women and there was representation from First Nations peoples, people with disability, young people, culturally diverse people and a broad range of experts engaged in research, public policy and advocacy.
Participants were asked to work in the spirit of consensus and find tangible solutions that will have a positive impact on workers, including early childhood educators and teachers, who got a shout out (as ‘childcare workers’) in the Prime Minister’s opening speech. Prime Minister Albanese set the scene for a new era of collaboration, calling on delegates not to prosecute old battles, but rather to find common ground: ‘The way the National Cabinet is functioning’, he said, ‘with agreement across the political spectrum is an example of what we are searching for.’ He also spoke of the need for increased productivity, stronger wages and better access to training, as well as a more equitable sharing of economic prosperity.
Importance of early childhood education and care
Early childhood education and care emerged as a key theme of the Summit very early on, featuring in the speeches of the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, premiers, panellists and keynote speakers. It was particularly encouraging to hear speakers recognise the dual contribution early education makes, both to children’s development and wellbeing and workforce participation for parents, especially women. This point was backed up earlier in the week in the National Cabinet statement that firmly positioned early childhood education and care as a part of the education system.
Danielle Wood, CEO at the Grattan Institute, gave the opening keynote address, in which she made a compelling case for full employment to be Australia’s economic lodestar and identified the benefits of this, including greater equality, for both business and individuals. She also made a strong case for improving Australia’s education system, including on-the-job support and ongoing professional learning for teachers, beginning in the early years.
Throughout the two days of the Summit, calls for investment in affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care were repeated by several of the panellists and speakers, including industry leaders such as Andrew Forrest (husband to Nicola Forrest, who is a driving force behind the Thrive by Five campaign). Often the term used by speakers was ‘childcare’, but the emphasis was not just on its benefits for parents; the positive impact on children’s development and wellbeing was also emphasised. Adam Bandt of the Australian Greens went further than many others, calling for fully subsidised, universal early childhood education and care for every child.
Supporting women’s workforce participation and economic equality
A strong and important theme of the Summit was women’s workforce participation and economic equality. Early childhood featured heavily as an enabler for this. In her opening remarks, Minister for Finance, Women and the Public Service Katy Gallagher highlighted the urgent need to address women’s economic equality. In a key announcement towards the development of the National Strategy for Gender Equality, Senator Gallagher announced that Sam Mostyn AO, CEO of Chief Executive Women, would be appointed as chair of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce. ‘We simply can’t afford to leave women’s talent on the shelf’, the senator said in her address and, in a separate tweet, also acknowledged, ‘getting the settings right for early childhood education and rebalancing care work is key to unlocking women’s workforce participation’.
Danielle Wood drew a striking analogy: ‘if untapped women’s workforce participation was a massive ore deposit’, she said, ‘we would have governments lining up to give tax concessions to get it out of the ground.’ Among the state leaders, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called for reforming the early childhood sector to welcome thousands of women who are currently ‘locked out’ of the workforce. He highlighted the lack of access to early childhood education as the main barrier for women willing to return to the workforce.
Nothing without a strong early childhood sector and workforce
The early childhood education and care sector needs to be thriving for it to contribute to any solutions for broader workforce participation. Thankfully, this point was not lost on participants at the Summit. For example, Georgie Dent, Executive Director at The Parenthood, advocated for supporting the early childhood education workforce, rightly emphasising that without early educators and a stable workforce, there is no early education. Danielle Wood also identified the workforce shortages in early childhood education and care as a major threat to Australia’s economic prosperity. She recognised the important role educators play as ‘the first and crucial step’ in children’s education journey, as well as in supporting families with young children to work.
In a sector where around 91% of the workforce are women, it is imperative that strategies that aim to bolster women’s economic security do not compromise the economic security of women working in the education and care profession.
Addressing workforce shortages
From the beginning to the end of the Summit, it was widely recognised that wages need to increase in order to keep pace with the rising cost of living and some sectors (including care sectors) need higher increases than others to address historic inequity. The options or pathways for achieving this were not always clear.
The Summit did commit to improving wage bargaining structures, allowing for more industry- or sector-wide negotiation while still allowing enterprise bargaining. Changes to the Fair Work Act are planned, including specific changes to address gender gaps and parity issues (such as differences in minimum pay rates for jobs with the same qualifications in different sectors), as well as modernising awards to make them easier to understand and apply.
One of the clearest outcomes from the Summit was an increase in the number of skilled migration places that will be available in 2022–23 to 195,000. The emphasis here is on encouraging people with skills to migrate rather than to address shortages through temporary visas, though there will also be further relaxation of work restrictions for holders of Student and Training visas. For both the federal government and the states and territories, Early Childhood (Pre-primary School) Teacher is on the list of priority occupations for skilled migration.
At the beginning of the Summit, the government announced a $1 billion one-year National Skills Agreement that will provide additional funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023 while a longer-term agreement that drives sector reform and supports women’s workforce participation is negotiated. The government will also look at expanding apprenticeships in new areas or industries and more opportunities for university students to engage in practical work placements, such as paid internships.
There are more short-, medium- and longer-term strategies in the Outcomes Paper.
Although speakers had very limited time to talk during the Summit, they universally acknowledged Country and respected Elders in a very genuine way, which made it feel like we have reached a significant tipping point in our reconciliation journey. It was heartening to hear Prime Minister Albanese state his government’s commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in his opening remarks. Industry and community leaders expressed strong support for the Statement throughout the event.
People with disability were well represented at the Summit and argued persuasively for more ambitious employment targets and aspirations. Current rates of unemployment for those with disability are unacceptably high (around 50%). Strategies to encourage employers to hire more people with disability were suggested. The potential certainly exists in the early childhood sector to increase opportunities for people with disability by sharing examples of successful outcomes, for both individuals and employers, of doing so.
There was also a lot of discussion about the importance of eliminating racism, embracing cultural diversity, reducing gender stereotypes and removing barriers for people returning to the workforce after being out of work for an extended period of time. Strategies include the development of a Carer Friendly Workplace Framework, which would contain a self-assessment tool and learning modules, recognition of businesses as carer-friendly workplaces, as well as allowing people on the aged pension to earn more before losing income support and benefits.
There was strong consensus and acknowledgement that Australia must transition to a low-carbon economy. The panel on ‘Workforce opportunities from clean energy and tackling climate change’ was surprisingly positive, with calls for Australia to be a leader in the development and adoption of renewable energy and sustainable business practices. Industry leaders were emphatic in calling for Australia to be a global leader in green energy and low-carbon emissions technologies. This theme continued at the summit dinner, in the keynote address by Ross Garnaut, who argued that Australia is well placed to be a superpower in this regard. The importance of climate change was underscored by the very impressive Yasmin Poole, who outlined the expectations young people have in relation to the climate that they inherit.
Overall, the Summit was a valuable opportunity to focus on opportunities to strengthen Australia’s economy and the important role of early childhood education and care. It is the work that comes next that will shore up the progress made. In his closing remarks, the Treasurer Jim Chalmers rightly pointed out that progressing any of the dialogues from the Summit calls for a collaboration among business, unions, community groups and all levels of government.
ECA, as always, is committed to working with governments and stakeholders to ensure that early childhood education and care is a priority going forward. We will be preparing a submission to the Treasury White Paper.