BRENT JENKINS: Risk-takers vital to our future

THE Hunter’s natural resources have supported economic growth in the region for 150 years. In agriculture, mining, equine and wine, this region has the resources to support export markets into the future with Newcastle’s world-class port as the focal point.

However, it is no longer a recipe for success to just export natural resources.

Commodity cycles have driven coal prices down and adverse weather events have played havoc with agricultural crops and produce. The key to economic sustainability for the Hunter is to utilise our skills to add value to these resources, to not only reduce the risk of commodity or natural cycles, which will always be present, but to increase employment and economic value.

To do this requires a skilled workforce, connection to global markets for goods and services, engineering and design capabilities, and an eco-system that supports investment and entrepreneurial activity.

We have many of these factors in the region and the Hunter has the potential to transform itself into a globally competitive region.

The university’s move to engage more with the economic growth of the region has the potential to unlock value like its namesake in the UK and cities such as Pittsburgh and Oklahoma in the US have done. Our port has more capacity and our regional logistics chain is world-class. However, there are a number of factors that the Hunter seems to be lacking.

We have limited access to finance, especially at the higher-risk end that supports new industries and start-ups.

We are well behind the world in innovation and productivity, especially in preparing for the inevitable impact that digitalisation will have on the workforce.

The recent CEDA report – ’s Future Workforce – estimated that up to 5 million jobs could disappear within the next 15 years as technology revolutionises our working lives. The job-loss rate could be much higher in regional areas.

How will these changes play out in our region, where we already have youth unemployment at crisis levels?

Hunter Research Foundation’s (HRF) own research shows that only 10 per cent of Hunter businesses export internationally and 71 per cent have a website that is used to conduct business.

These are critically low figures given the globalisation of markets and the digitalisation of our economy. Why is this?

The first place one needs to look is business confidence. HRF has recorded a downward trend in business confidence since 2010.

We will not see the level of investment required to capture global opportunities without a significant upturn in confidence.

The federal government must develop policies and programs that support investment, risk-taking and employment.

The state government should not just continue milking the Hunter ‘‘cash cow’’, but offer a serious and resourced regional renewal program that supports fundamental change, not window dressing.

Both governments need to place n jobs as a priority when procuring infrastructure and transport.

The second place to look is our youth. The young men and women graduating from our university and TAFE systems are brimful of the skills and capabilities that will define the region’s economic future.

If we cannot employ these resources locally, in areas that will create new businesses, they will take their talent, energy and tolerance for risk-taking elsewhere.

The areas of new media, design and information technology are the ones that excite our young people and these are exactly the ones that we desperately need.

The Hunter has a bright economic future – we just have to have the confidence to grasp it.

Dr Brent Jenkins is chief executive of Hunter Research Foundation

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