Hitting regional skills shortage

By Richard Fox

BUSINESSES and universities are flocking to a project that aims to reduce the skills shortage in regional centres across Australia.

The Brolga Project places final year university students into work experience positions so that urban students can gain a taste of life in rural and regional areas.

It has so far signed up 10 universities, including the University of New England, Bond University and University of Wollongong, and has placed more than 300 students with businesses in regional areas since starting up last October.

Talks with another university are ongoing.

Manager of the initiative, Richard Cowley, said the project had been so successful, he was looking for more businesses to take on willing students.

“The goal is to encourage students to take up their career in rural centres and to stop the drift of students moving from the country to the cities,” Mr Cowley said.

“What we know is that when young people from urban areas experience life elsewhere, they are often persuaded to follow their career path in those regional areas.

“It has been so successful we are now looking for more businesses to absorb the willing students.”

Working in conjunction with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to find suitable workplaces, Mr Cowley fields about two inquiries a day from students across 27 different courses, which include agriculture, civil engineering, marketing, IT, journalism, accounting and law.

Students sign up for the scheme through their universities as part of the normal internship programs, while expressions of interest from businesses can be made online or over the phone.

After matching up students with a prospective workplace, a video conference with all parties included determines if the match would be successful.

All this is done by Mr Cowley, from his home office in Brisbane, and Aki Tobe, a marketing student from the University of Adelaide, who is the project’s database manager.

Administration costs for the scheme are met by Mr Cowley and the Brolga Project, while a mix of sponsorship, business arrangements and brokerage make the initiative financially viable.

Students are not asked to provide any finances towards their placement.

The idea came to Mr Cowley, who grew up in the southern Queensland town of Cunnamulla and has a rural background which includes stints on properties across the Northern Territory, after completing a course at the University of New England as a mature-aged student.

“There is a huge opportunity for any university student to expand their horizons and do their work experience in a regional centre,” he said.

“Skills they learn on placements can be easily transferred to any career in rural Australia and beyond.”

Among the placements since its launch, law students from the University of NSW and the University of New England have experienced life in the South Burnett area of Queensland and engineering students from the Sunshine Coast are to be placed with councils in western NSW later this year.