by Kirk Coningham, CEO, Australian Logistics Council

When the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy was released a year ago, COVID-19 was not on anyone’s radar, much less something around which Australian households and businesses were busily redesigning their day-to-day activities.

Yet now, with the pandemic’s curve seemingly flattened and government attention turning to how the economic recovery can be hastened, the good news is that a significant amount of work on that front has already been done.

Everything that political leaders have talked about as priority areas in the pursuit of economic recovery – enhanced infrastructure, regulatory reform, harmonisation, red tape reduction and ensuring the workforce is equipped with the right skills for the future – are explicitly addressed by the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy (the Strategy).

At a meeting of the Transport and Infrastructure Council (TIC) in November 2019, governments were asked to present their implementation plans for the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy.

These documents were intended to move the Strategy into the next phase by setting out how jurisdictions would put their plans into action.

As ALC noted at the time, it was regrettable that there was not enough detail in several of the plans presented to give industry confidence that the measures will be pursued with a sufficient sense of urgency.

Certainly, the absence of clear deadlines for completing key actions – a basic requirement in being able to track and assess progress – was a deep concern.

Effective implementation of the Strategy was urgent before COVID-19 hit, but it is even more critical now.

Industry-led accountability

The price we pay for consumer goods, our international competitiveness, continued growth in exports and the liveability of our communities are all inextricably linked to our ability to move freight efficiently, safely and cost-effectively.

The nation faces a far more challenging economic climate than that which prevailed at the time of the Strategy’s release, so opportunities to enhance national productivity and permit our exporters to compete more effectively on the international stage must be grasped quickly.

With so much at stake, it is essential that the implementation plans developed by governments be updated to reflect this new reality.

In particular, it is essential that these plans clearly spell out how, when and by whom actions will be delivered, so that progress can be measured and jurisdictions can be held to account.

ALC also believes it is vital for industry to ensure that its needs are being actioned by governments by establishing an industry-led accountability measure that will provide a practical perspective as to how effectively implementation is occurring – and which areas need greater focus.

To that end, ALC is now working with our members to develop a ‘scorecard’ which will take into account the level of detail in each implementation plan, its alignment with the priorities contained within the Strategy, and the progress that has been made in implementing the commitments made in each jurisdictional implementation plan.

The scorecard will ‘grade’ each jurisdiction against a set of benchmarks. These benchmarks are currently being developed by members of ALC’s policy committees, which examine key policy areas including infrastructure, regulation, safety and technology.

This will ensure that the assessment criteria are being developed by those working in these key supply chain areas on a day-to-day basis, and accordingly will provide a realistic, practical view of whether jurisdictional plans are actually being delivered in a way that meets the needs of industry.

New skill sets for future freight workers

A renewed focus on skills will also be vital in helping the freight and logistics industry be properly equipped for a post-COVID future.

The evolving nature of logistics and freight operations will require a very different skill set from the sector’s future workforce going forward.

People will need to be comfortable operating sophisticated IT systems and equipment, in vehicles and in distribution centres and terminals, as customers demand greater visibility over freight as it moves through the supply chain.

The influence of automation will also be felt, and those skilled in the operation and maintenance of robotics will be highly sought.

The sector will also increasingly need workforce participants that understand how to analyse and interrogate data sets.

This will help companies to plan and coordinate more efficient supply chain operations and identify and address safety risks.

Although these efforts must be industry-led, there is certainly scope for governments to play a greater role in making certain the transport sector’s workforce is prepared for a changing world.

Many industry participants continue to note that the transport sector has not received appropriate levels of attention when it comes to skills and training support, especially in comparison to the hospitality, retail and human services sectors.

The Federal Government began to develop a new Transport Sector Skills Strategy last year. In ALC’s view, this strategy must align the skills and ambitions of new workforce participants with the needs of a sector increasingly reliant on technology, and which requires workers with skill sets that enable them to work between multiple areas or tasks, depending on operational needs.

Prioritising the strategy’s goals

Our world has undoubtedly been changed by the COVID-19 experience – and the freight and logistics sector will see continued change as a result.

However, in an environment where providing economic stimulus and employment opportunities through infrastructure projects and regulatory reform are urgent priorities, the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy now needs to be prioritised for what it is – a critical tool in driving Australia’s post-COVID economic recovery.

There’s been some encouraging signs in that respect over recent months, with all Ministers attending the COAG Transport and Infrastructure Council recommitting themselves to the implementation of the NFSCS.

Similarly, the Prime Minister’s announcement that the construction of Inland Rail would be expedited as part of the JobMaker initiative should be applauded because it also provides confidence for those looking to make complementary infrastructure investments along the alignment, including intermodals and logistics precincts.

Likewise, state and territory governments are now engaging with industry on issues like curfews and agreeing to explore how modern technology (including electric vehicles) can be deployed to make freight and logistics activities less intrusive, which would give operators the greater operational flexibility they have been seeking for many years.

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