Crafting the future: the vital role of hands-on skills in Australia’s economy

By Our Reporter
Andrew Young from the Cooperage at Seppeltsfield. Photo by Rosina Possingham Photography

Australia’s future economic prosperity is increasingly linked to the revival and nurturing of hands-on making skills within its local manufacturing sector. This vital industry, however, faces a significant challenge: a generational loss of crafts and practical expertise, exacerbated by the offshoring of manufacturing operations over the past four decades.

According to Professor Susan Luckman of the University of South Australia, there’s been a noticeable decline in craft skills in Australian employment since 2006, despite overall economic growth. This decline is deeply intertwined with the ageing workforce in Australia’s making economy. The nation, which once thrived on a robust domestic manufacturing sector bolstered by trade-skills migration post-WW2, now witnesses a waning pool of skilled makers. Yet, those who remain in this diminishing sector are seeing an increase in incomes, propelled by the rising demand for artisanal products and Australian-made goods.

The significance of this issue was starkly highlighted in 2017 when the last Holden car rolled off the assembly line in South Australia, marking a notable downturn in the country’s manufacturing industry. This event was not isolated. Iconic Australian brands like Bonds, King Gee, and Hard Yakka have met similar fates, reflecting a broader trend of decline in domestic manufacturing. Despite this downturn, over 116,500 people were employed in the sector in 2021, contributing $19.2 billion to the gross domestic product – a figure slightly larger than the country’s sports economy.

Professor Luckman emphasises the substantial value of Australia’s craft and manufacturing industry, which ranges from small-scale, high-end custom products to large-scale textile manufacturing. She notes the potential for a resurgence in Australian making, particularly through small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who form the backbone of the country’s contemporary manufacturing ecosystem.

Her research, funded by the Australian Research Council, has involved interviews with individuals from various craft and manufacturing organisations, including shoemakers, potters, and sculptors. These conversations have shed light on the challenges and opportunities within the industry, highlighting the need for embracing technology and merging traditional skills with digital innovation. This approach could revolutionise advanced manufacturing by reimagining production processes.

The South Australian non-profit organisation JamFactory is a testament to the enduring value of craft and design. With around 50 craftspeople employed in diverse roles, JamFactory not only assists in production but also educates through short courses, attracting artisans to utilise its facilities. Brian Parkes, CEO of JamFactory, observes an increasing interest in hand-made and locally produced goods among young people, sparking a resurgence in the desire to learn craft skills. However, there is a notable gap in technical skills among recent graduates, indicating a pressing need for more focused training pathways in specific crafts like glassblowing.

Parkes suggests mentorships, traineeships, and skilled migration as potential solutions to address the skill gap in the short to medium term. The growth in demand for manufacturing services in facilities like JamFactory and the Canberra Glassworks, particularly in artisanal production areas such as glassblowing, underscores the importance of these skills in the current economic landscape.

The future of Australian manufacturing and its economic success hinges on a balanced integration of tradition and digital innovation, alongside a renewed focus on hands-on craft skills training and industry collaboration. Embracing this dual approach could not only revive the domestic manufacturing capacity but also position Australia at the forefront of a global artisanal and advanced manufacturing renaissance.

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