Unlocking the social and economic potential of Australia’s rural and remote communities is the first of the five priorities that the National Rural Health Alliance has identified as being vital to support the health and wellbeing of the seven million people who live outside the major cities of Australia.
A key factor in achieving this involves bridging the divide in health outcomes between those who live in metropolitan areas and those who live in rural and remote Australia. By improving health and wellbeing, we enable individuals and families to participate more fully in employment, education, and the community more generally. That unlocks significant economic gains in terms of opportunity, productivity and growth.
A second factor involves building the local economy, including the creation of new job opportunities.
As the resources boom ends, a big question is what are the jobs of the future and how do we get them out into rural and remote communities? The Productivity Commission has been tasked with examining the challenges facing communities following the resources boom and identifying how to assist communities to diversify their local economies.
The Alliance believes that some of the major areas for future jobs in rural and remote communities will be found through looking to meet specific regional needs and through human services and education.
As our communities age, there will be a greater need for aged care workers and as the National Disability Insurance Scheme expands, it too will need a local workforce. This comes on top of existing needs for health care workers and aged care support.
Better access to education in smaller communities will open up educational and career options for school leavers and those seeking to retrain. Regional universities have been expanding their footprint over the past five years and are now well placed in rural and remote communities to take a lead in addressing the education component of the growing human service needs in smaller communities. Growth in local education services will also lead to further jobs in education and training and administrative support.
One of the key challenges for smaller communities has been to develop jobs and career pathways for young people. Too often young people are faced with the choice of either leaving the community to train and pursue a career - many never to return - or staying at home and giving up the dream of education and a career. The enlarged footprint of regional universities makes it possible now for young people to train closer to their community, and often to train in their community. This will only get better as internet access improves in smaller communities.
Many communities are already looking to diversify their local economy and are working with outside agencies to explore a range of options - for example setting up hydroponic and market gardens to supply fresh vegetables and fruit to local suppliers. These ventures, such as in Katherine in the NT, not only generate local jobs, but lead to greater engagement with education and local markets to develop a model that will ensure their long-term sustainability.
Regional universities and technical and further education colleges are vital to support these initiatives and to work with local communities to explore options for diversification that may not have previously been considered. Universities are now recognising the challenge and engaging with local communities.
One of the major benefits for rural and remote communities of greater engagement from higher education bodies and better access to education opportunities will be improved health and wellbeing in local communities.