Tackling the skills shortage

Hitachi Global Air Power
By Erika Krenmayr, Sullair Australia (formerly Champion Compressors)
Monday, 24 October, 2011


Many industries around the country are battling a skills shortage, particularly for tradespeople, and the compressed air sector is no exception. As Australia strives to meet recent infrastructure demands as a result of natural disasters, major project initiatives and the mining resources boom, it is clear that placing a ‘vacancy’ ad in the newspaper is no longer enough.

Human resources specialists are striving to find new recruitment methods to attract candidates and fill the short- and long-term employment vacancies. As the employee market continues to shrink, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill vacancies across different types of roles such as sales representatives, executive positions or skilled tradespeople. To date, finding suitably qualified service technicians for remote areas such as the Pilbara and Northern Queensland has remained a challenge.

Fly-in, fly-out

Sullair’s first approach has been to utilise the different skills the company has across its network of branches to offer senior staff an opportunity to be a part of the fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) team to service the more remote clients, particularly for the mining sector. By basing the service technicians in Perth, Adelaide or Mackay we can better manage our staff.

This approach has certainly been attractive to some employees within Sullair Australia and has provided much-needed flexibility in utilisation of skills as per the requirements. A combination of rostered shifts, relocation assistance and off-site penalty rates can be very rewarding to some people. The mine site medical and safety training makes our service technicians more valuable and they help our organisation meet the growing need for compressed air specialists in the mining industry. However, this training also makes the technicians very attractive to the mining companies. An employee must have completed the induction program and should possess a full trade qualification to work at a mine site.

The skills shortage is significantly intense and some companies are rumoured to be recruiting staff mid flight, said Daryl Edwards, Executive Manager Aftermarket, Sullair Australia. “You can take off as an employee of one company and land as the employee of another.”

Right talent for the right job

A FIFO strategy is certainly one tactic in the armoury of HR professionals, but longer-term staff shortage challenges remain. To address that issue, Sullair Australia has adjusted its recruitment processes and employment offerings.

Our aftermarket team identified an opportunity to hire and train mechanically skilled candidates for routine servicing while maintaining our highly skilled labour pool for more complex tasks. By offering candidates an opportunity to join Sullair at an entry level, there is scope to help them develop a career path in the compressed air industry with full training and support.

Sullair Australia’s in-house training investment is part of an overall commitment to deliver customer service excellence and safety to compressed air customers. The production and servicing capabilities of Sullair Australia enable the company to leverage its Dandenong-based manufacturing facility as an on-the-job training centre to further enhance the skills of its employees. Service technicians spend time in the classroom and also on the production floor, building compressors and interacting with the engineers who designed them and putting theory into practice.

Go on a global talent hunt

The other option considered by many recruiters is to look overseas for skilled tradespeople. This presents a whole new set of challenges, such as dealing with immigration laws, trade qualification recognition, language skills and relocation.

The current immigration laws require that immigrants wishing to work in Australia must satisfy the business-sponsored work visa subclass 457 requirements. Depending on the applicant’s country of origin, it can be a long and sometimes difficult process. In an environment where roles need to be filled quickly, long delays can make overseas recruitment seem impractical.

However, there is an option across the Tasman. The Australian and New Zealand governments have an agreement in place that gives New Zealand citizens the right to work in Australia for up to four years. Given the difficult employment and economic environment in New Zealand at present, working in Australia is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition for New Zealanders. Recent analysis by Statistics New Zealand indicates that migration to Australia is at the highest levels since 1981.

New Zealand ticks a lot of boxes for Sullair: New Zealand citizens don’t need 457 work visas to work in Australia; they need minimal additional training to meet Australian standards; English proficiency; and a relatively easier relocation process for both parties.

“For many work sites, language is a major consideration. Contractors must be able to communicate fluently with their colleagues, understand the safety requirements and pass the mine induction programs for their own safety, as well as the safety of other mining personnel and the site,” agreed Edwards.

One such candidate hired by Sullair Australia from New Zealand is Mike Lamusse, a fitter and turner and engine rebuilder. “I had heard of Sullair and knew they were part of a much larger international firm, but beyond that I didn’t really know much about them,” Lamusse recalls. “The service technician role outlined skills similar to what I have, so I opted to give it a go. Given the employment situation in New Zealand, it was well worth looking at other options such as this.”

Lamusse was the appropriate candidate for the role. He held New Zealand citizenship and had the trade qualifications and aptitude, enabling him to confidently progress through Sullair’s comprehensive training program.

With three core strategies to combat the skills shortage in place - FIFO incentives, hiring employees based on skill levels and task complexity, and overseas recruitment - Sullair is well on its way to eliminating skill shortages. But in an environment where many companies are feeling the same pinch, these strategies are being quickly replicated, creating pressure to find the next solution.

A good reputation can be the key point of difference. As Lamusse points out, competitors are offering similar packages, but additional benefits and cultural incentives offered by the recruiter can sway the final decision. Whether it’s within the country or overseas, relocation can be a stressful upheaval for many families. Training provisions, health and medical benefits, carers leave, and family counselling and support are a few attractive elements that a prospective employer can offer.

It is clear there is no ‘quick fix’ to remedy the shortage of skilled workers facing Australian industries. The efforts of human resource managers, along with the strength and reputation of the company will contribute to the ability to attract the right people for the right jobs. On-the-job training, government support for company-sponsored immigration and other such strategies will be important in ‘up-skilling’ a longer-term workforce.

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