Defending Australia's retail talent

BY Katherine Mechanicos
27 April 2018

The ARA are leading the charge in protecting local skills required to keep Australian retailers globally competitive.

The Australian retail sector contributes close to $310 billion to the Australian economy, and is the largest single private employer by industry sector, providing work for more than 1.2 million people. However, with the entrance and influence of international brands Australian retailers are continuing to face a complex operating environment. Furthermore, Australian retailers have long been challenged by the availability of local talent to fill buying, planning and online roles in the industry. These issues along with the rapid advancements of digital technology are constantly creating competitive pressures within the fast-paced industry.

As the retail industry’s peak representative body, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has been advocating for its members for almost 115 years on issues that invariably include skills shortages in the local labour market and the costly flow-on effect of doing business in a competitive global market. In fact, the ARA have spent two years consulting both industry stakeholders and the Government in relation to an increasingly apparent skills-shortage in key areas of retail buying, merchandise planning and digital commerce. These highly sought-after skill sets allow retailers to streamline business operations, obtain international perspectives on retail operations and deliver advanced analytical and reporting expertise. As the leading voice for retail, the ARA have also been consulting the Government and advocating for formal training and professional development options for retail employees to support future careers in Australian retail.

Unfortunately, the recent changes to the 457 visa program has restricted Australian retailers in accessing specific roles required in the modern retail environment, further hindering the growth and development of local retail talent. The significant amendments to the 457 visa scheme have included removing 216 occupations from the program, and placing 268 occupations on the Short-Term Skills Occupations List (STSOL), restricting the holder to a two-year stay, one renewal, and no pathway to permanent residency. Unfortunately, the retail sector was not consulted on these changes and the Government’s decision to remove Retail Buyer from the 457 visa program has created a war on Australia’s retail talent. Restricting access to specialised talent inexorably hampers the ability for Australian retailers to compete in a dynamic global market and correlates negatively with the employment of Australian workers. Therefore, the ARA are concerned that limiting the industry’s access to these required skill sets from global markets will only create additional challenges for Australian retailers already struggling to manage the pressures of international competition.

Working with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), the ARA sought additional advice from members to safeguard the future of Australian retail talent. A survey was sent out to ARA members seeking responses in relation to the difficulties in securing local talent across key occupational groupings. This survey identified how the 457 visa changes will have a major impact on future business growth, securing retail talent, promoting local employees and international competitiveness. ARA members were able to identify Retail Buyers, Merchandise Planners, Merchandise Designers and Digital Commerce as four critical roles required in contemporary retailing. Closely related to these emerging skill sets and of great importance to many ARA members includes Fashion Designers, Web Designers and General Managers which have all been consigned to the STSOL, creating a strong disincentive for highly skilled retail talent to relocate to Australia. The survey also highlighted that although ARA members look at the local market for qualified candidates first, the short-supply of experienced retail talent remains one of the most frustrating realities for Australian retailers.

This industry-wide survey assisted the ARA in formulating an accurate response to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) on the proposed 457 visa changes to ensure current and future applicants for these particular roles are not affected. As skilled retail employees are an enormous asset to the industry, the ARA’s submission recommended a pathway for highly skilled visa holders in key retail categories to be offered permanent residency. The ARA’s submission also highlighted the adverse effects on the sector caused by the removal of certain retail occupations, subsequently asking the Department to re-instate the Retail Buyer role to the STSOL and add further critical roles required in contemporary retailing to the list. Taking a longer-term view, the ARA’s submission also proposed the development and implementation of HECS-HELP for tertiary qualifications to support careers in Australian retail, ensuring the longevity of Australians future retail talent.

In July, the ARA welcomed the Government’s decision to re-instate Retail Buyer to the STSOL, however were disappointed that Merchandise Planners, Merchandise Designers and Digital Commerce were not added to this list as well.

As the ARA has long been advocating for its members on skills shortages in the local labour market, the industry association will continue to seek a more sophisticated and inclusive approach in identifying strategic retail occupations prior to any further reforms being implemented. The ARA also look forward to working with the Department to develop local retail talent through relevant tertiary studies which will in turn guide the future of Australian retail.

ARA Retail Institute is the leading national body providing for the education, consulting and professional development needs of the Australian retail industry. To view the ARA’s full submission to the DIBP visit retail.org.au/policy-advocacy

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katherine Mechanicos

Katherine is the Media and Communications Specialist at the Australian Retailers Association (ARA).

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