Business leaders call for collaboration to drive Australia's COVID-19 recovery

They believe a joint effort will deliver investment in technology and skills.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Leaders of some of the largest organisations in Australia have pleaded for industry and government to collaborate on investing in digital technology and skills to ensure the country is poised for recovery and growth following the coronavirus pandemic.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) CEO Larry Marshall explained: "All CEOs have a choice. You could use technology to cut cost -- and that means cut jobs and expenses -- or you use it to free up resources in the future and shift the business".

He noted, however, investing in technology alone won't be enough to drive an increase in productivity levels but rather, it needs to be a joint effort.

"The idea of being dazzled by digital is going to magically transform your business, that's rubbish. You know your business, you know your customers, if you can embrace digital but not let go of your domain experience in your particular market … that's where you'll get breakthrough innovation," he said, speaking during a panel event on Thursday.

"We've got to get better at not looking for the silver bullet but working together and recognising the value people bring in addition to technology, science, and digital, and that's when you'll see new value."

Microsoft Australia managing director Steven Worrall agreed that collaboration would be the key to both addressing the country's tech skills shortage and rising unemployment numbers.

"There's no question that the skill shortage we've seen prior to the crisis was acute in Australia. In fact, in the IT industry in Australia there were 20,000 jobs created every year over the last several years, but you've got 5,000 graduates coming out of all our universities with some form of technical or scientific degree. So, there's a skills deficit there already … [but] it's gone beyond acute," he said.

"The answer is in collaboration. It would be working with the tech sector because obviously we bring to the table the digital capabilities and skills that would be necessary to transfer to our workforce. Not only the workforce in place today, but also looking at who are unemployed or underserved.

"That collaboration obviously has to be with industry and the education services market. It's through those partnerships that we know we can move the dial in helping to get people back to work and raise the skill level of the Australian workforce."

On the point of skills, Fortescue Metals boss Elizabeth Gains highlighted how the iron ore company has been investing in digitisation, data, and analytics to improve overall productivity, but it has also managed to retrain and reskill its workforce as a result.

"We've been on the journey of autonomy for some time now and whilst we see huge benefits with autonomy -- safety benefits, productivity benefits … we've worked very closely with our team members and those who are impacted by autonomy to retrain and redeploy … and what it leads to are better jobs and better skills," she said.

The panel also raised the point about the need to create a suitable environment in Australia to attract business investment and eventually help with economic recovery.

"It is business investment that creates jobs. Nine out of 10 jobs are created by the private sector, and it is business investment that will drive productivity and those industries of the future that are going to underpin our future prosperity as a society," Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins said.

"Tax is part of it, IR (industrial relations) is part of it, but the overall objective is about having an environment that business investment will accelerate."

Read more: Industry body labels Australia's R&D tax incentive Bill as 'unduly diluted'

Gains agreed, touching on how tax reforms could potentially be one way to create this attractive environment.

"We do have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, and my concern is … they may choose other areas to invest outside of Australia because of different tax regimes," she said.

"We need to be competitive. But I do think having the settings in place that encourage investment, whether that's through depreciation and R&D, is also a very important part of making sure we have a competitive tax regime that actually encourages and promote investment," she said.

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