It goes without saying that the global pandemic has changed the way we operate – as individuals and as businesses.
While some industries have sought to pivot and others simply switched to survival mode, some actually saw an increase in business: just talk to your local cyclist retailer or home renovation specialist. However, some sectors are anticipating a benefit which will likely play out over a more extended period, catalysed by the shift in values and culture which COVID-19 has brought about.
Larry Platt – Executive Chairman of The Advitech Group – has a few ideas about what may hold for the future of engineering in Australia, and why the Hunter region is poised to benefit from it.
“The Australian manufacturing industry is in a bad way,” he explains. He’s not wrong: in the 1980s, when manufacturing was the biggest employer in Australia, the sector comprised 16.5% of the workforce, and today that figure stands at just 6.4% – representing a drop in GDP contribution of around 20%. “It’s obvious to people in the industry and it’s been obvious for a while now.”
While it may be obvious to those embedded in the sector, the state of the manufacturing industry hasn’t been a political priority for some time. “When Turnbull was in government, there was at least some recognition: but there was no particular hurry,” explains Larry. All that looked to change in 2020, when the global pandemic revealed the insecurity of the global supply chain upon which we as a nation rely. “We were all seeing a shortage of drugs, of everyday items, of toys on the shelves at Christmas – the weakness was exposed.” There are still shortages of many items – including life-saving pharmaceuticals – across the country.
In response to these shortages, and to the shifting post-COVID economic landscape, the Morrison Government released their four-year Modern Manufacturing Strategy in October 2020, which proposes to, ‘make Australian manufacturers more competitive, resilient and able to scale-up and take on the world’. At the centrepiece of the strategy is a $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative, which will support projects across Australia’s key areas of priority (resources technology and critical minerals processing, food and beverage, medical products, recycling and clean energy, defence, and space).
The strategy is an exciting gateway for new business opportunities, and as any Novocastrian engineer – including Larry – will tell you, the Hunter is in a prime position to take them up.
“We have the resources: water, the port, transport, and energy: the biggest risk to manufacturing is dispatchable power and the region is already becoming a major player in renewables,” he explains. Indeed, construction of the country’s largest battery is scheduled to soon commence just south of Newcastle at Eraring.
It’s not just the Hunter’s resources which are valuable at this time, but our people, too. “The Hunter has a long history of manufacturing, and we have the culture too,” says Larry, as he emphasises that the Hunter workforce is ready for the changes we are seeing across the region. “We have a strong basis for engineering education, and people are willing to do shift work: you wouldn’t see that in Sydney.” Newcastle and the surrounding region already has a wealth of engineering talent: much of which is represented at The Advitech Group. The group prides itself on its diversity of applied knowledge and expertise and delivers projects right across the STEM&M (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and manufacturing) spectrum. Of course, as well as the Hunter’s established engineering organisations, there’s a push to bring new entrepreneurs and innovators to the region too, as part of the City’s ‘Smarter Living’ initiative. “Those working in manufacturing in the Hunter are here at the right time and in the right place.”
Despite the Hunter’s advantageous position though, Larry is keen to warn that the work won’t just land in our hands: we need to continue to encourage entrepreneurial business growth and foster agility across the STEM&M space. “What we lack is a pro-active approach to attracting industry. At the moment we are very reactive – we can’t just wait for overseas industries to become customers. When you’re a small industry you know you need to approach people, that’s what we learned very early on at The Advitech Group. You’ve got to be noticed.”