Imagine, just imagine, how it would be if when the final COVID 19 restrictions are lifted, everything returns to the way it was before.

There is no doubt, that many of us yearn for that old normal, the way things were, but there are others who know that things were not perfect, with declining retail sales, slowing tourism and …, so perhaps this disruption, as dreadful as it has been, is an opportunity to rethink and redefine our future.

We are now familiar with the phrase ‘the new normal,’ but how many of us really know what that means or what it could mean for us as individuals and as a region. Everyone’s circumstances are different but together we are the Cradle Coast region – ‘the Coast’ – and we need to play an active role in shaping the new normal.

In a region which is all too familiar with economic turbulence, the BIG question must be, how will the region respond to this challenge? The stimulus packages will make a significant difference, and historical evidence shows that when conditions are supportive, we are opportunistic and recover at similar rates to the rest of Tasmania. However, we also know that our lower skilled workforce finds it difficult to transition to new work. A lack of appropriately skilled workers could once again be the Achilles’ heel in our recovery and in the creation of the new normal. The Regional Futures Plan emphasises the need to create new jobs and better jobs for Cradle Coasters, however this requires major investment by both the private and public sector in education and training.

The Federal Government’s focus is now moving from Jobkeeper and Jobseeker, to Jobmaker and ‘winning the battle for jobs, and jobs for the future.’ Governments across Australia are focused on construction and infrastructure as the means to restart the economy. This is welcome news to many in the sector, which has experienced a substantial number of projects delayed, deferred or cancelled across our region, leading to redundancies and stand downs. Typically, unskilled workers are the first to go and last to be re-employed; apprentices and younger workers walk away from the industry and some walk away from the region, often having a lasting, negative impact on our workforce and population profiles.

Training and upskilling are critical to the reimagining and rebuilding of our economy and community. The Futures Plan identified low educational attainment and the ability to recruit suitably skilled employees as structural challenges for our region and key to building and maintaining a strong region. This is not a new issue, but it is an issue we need to address.

Irrespective of how we reimagine our region, we must build a workforce that has enough people with the right skills to deliver the current projects, while simultaneously investing in education and training to prepare our region for the jobs of the future. It is time to develop ‘a regional roadmap to a stronger skill sector’ (Joyce Report 2019); a map that connects all aspects of education, training and career development to the new normal, and the next future.

For the industries and businesses who are re-opening their doors, or gearing up in response to government stimuli, the focus is on getting back to work, generating an income and paying salaries, it may be business as usual. For those industries that have been virtually untouched by COVID 19, it may be business as usual. However, for a sizeable group within our community who are not returning to work or whose hours have been slashed or who are waiting anxiously to see if and how their industry recovers, it is not business as usual.

Many of these people are facing an as yet unknown, new normal. This is the group that needs our region to reimagine the future, that needs all of us to be innovative, to seek and create new opportunities and to invest in them through the provision of cutting edge, future focused training and education. We must reimagine our approach to learning, so that the system works for those who most need help. We need to reimagine what affordability, flexibility, accessibility and relevance looks like for vocational and tertiary education, and we need to resource our primary and secondary schools so that industry engagement and career development is a central part of every child’s education.

A highly skilled population will ensure that we are ready to respond to the new opportunities that emerge as part of our new normal.

 – Sheree Vertigan AM

Sheree is a Director of the Cradle Coast Authority (CCA) and Chair of CCA’s Regional Economic Development Steering Group