By James Pearson, ACCI CEO
Regional small businesses, particularly mum-and-dad enterprises, are the beating heart of their communities. They generate jobs and pump wealth and opportunities into towns. They help keep our regions alive.
The drought is proving as catastrophic for local businesses as it is for farmers.
Because while we can plainly see the devastation that drought wreaks on the landscape, and the impact on farmers, the toll it takes on small, regional businesses is often overlooked.
Eventually the grass will grow again, but a boarded up business won’t reopen.
We need to invest in our regions, strengthen foundations in infrastructure, skills and tourism to support and help grow our regional businesses.
In September, The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry made a submission to the Federal Government’s inquiry into jobs for the future in regional areas.
We believe that there is much we can do to stimulate our regions – to stimulate regional industries, prop up business in times of hardship and generate jobs.
The Health Care and Social Assistance industry employs the largest proportion of people in regional Australia (13.4%), followed by retail trade (10.3%), construction, education and training (8.8% each) and accommodation and food service (7.6%).
All of these service industries employ a higher proportion of workers in regional Australia than they do in the economy overall.
As you would expect, there is a higher proportion of regional workers in agriculture and mining, and although these two industries do not rank in the top five directly employing industries the indirect employment generated by them is very important to regional economies.
In our submission we suggested ways to bolster these industries, from agritourism, to digital connectivity, skills development and migration programs.
Strong industries that provide employment to a majority of regional Australians should not be ignored. Conducive and supportive policies that drive growth in these industries are essential for maintaining employment and growth in the regions.
Agritourism, or food tourism, is a burgeoning industry in regional Australia. More and more domestic and international visitors are going to a region to visit a farm or local festival, market or natural attraction.
Agritourism has an important role in creating a direct connection between the primary producers and the end consumer, so regional areas are the primary benefactors of agritourism.
However, labour shortages and a lack of adequate skills for businesses to be able to diversify and cater to visitors, lack of accommodation and transport infrastructure, are all barriers to the growth of the industry.
We need to create training and extension opportunities to increase skills, to accelerate agritourism and food tourism, and raise their profiles to increase the number of visits to regions.
Training support is needed in marketing, customer relations and product development. One way to deal with this and increase interest in the industry is to provide support for businesses and universities to work more closely together. Students can assist businesses with marketing, customer relations and product development through industry placements in businesses.
Digital connectivity is also key to helping our regional businesses prosper.
Inconsistency in service delivery, lack of access and digital connectivity in the regions inhibits the ability of business to operate effectively and grow.
Businesses need to be online to collaborate, market and communicate with their customers and suppliers to innovate and expand.
We need to continue to improve digital infrastructure in the regions and facilitate digital connectivity for businesses and employees relying on the network for their businesses and jobs.
The Australian Chamber supports the efforts of the Government and the NBN Co to improve digital connectivity across Australia, particularly in regional Australia.
Skills and migration are also key to supporting regional businesses.
The lack of labour and skills to fill existing local jobs in the regions is an increasing challenge for many businesses.
With the exodus of working age Australians to urban areas for study or work, businesses in the regions are in need of skilled labour. But often they find it hard to hire local people or to attract people from other regions or cities.
Businesses look to Australia’s migration program to fill their skills and labour gap. However, attracting migrants to regional Australia is not easy.
We support the pathway to permanency, which allows migrants to put down roots in the regional community, making them less likely to then migrate to the cities.
We are calling for a review to 2017 changes to the skilled migration program which removed a number of occupations eligible for the Temporary Skills Shortage visa, including those in industries that are important to the regions such as accommodation and food services.
ACCI believes now, more than ever, we need to pull the right policy levers to help regional businesses not only survive in times of hardship, but thrive well into the future.
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