Trends and predictions for the Australian health and safety job market

Given the global COVID-19 pandemic, and with JobKeeper having ended on 31 March 2021, you might think there would be plenty of unemployed and underemployed Aussies practically begging for jobs. But that just isn’t the case.

What’s actually happening in the Australian health and safety job market is fascinating for employers and job seekers alike.

Australia’s broader job market

In the broader Australian job market, the average weekly earnings is $1150, 68% of employed Aussies are employed full time, and the median age of workers is 39 years. And there are several major influencing factors at play including COVID-19 and JobKeeper.

When JobKeeper ended on 31 March 2021, there were around 372,000 Aussie businesses relying on the wage assistance program. So, when the program ended, many assumed those businesses would have to start letting staff go and therefore that there would be lots of people eager to find work.

Instead, many employers, especially in the hospitality, tourism, IT, construction and engineering sectors, are struggling to compensate for staff shortages in part because their vacancies would normally be filled by foreign workers. This lack of incoming workers is compounded by a recovering employment market which saw nearly 90,000 new jobs added in February 2021 for a total of nearly 290,000 job vacancies, reducing the unemployment rate to below 6% (it went down to 5.8% in February and dropped again to 5.6% at the end of March 2021). Having said that, the underemployment rate grew to 8.5% in February and then dropped back down a little to 7.9% at the end of March 2021, so it seems quite a few people gained employment but not as many hours as they would have liked. Ben Udy, an economist from Capital Economics, believes the unemployment rate may drop below 5% by the middle of the year.

Indeed, as of 6 April 2021, the number of jobs advertised in Oz is 23% higher than pre-COVID levels — the highest it’s been in 12 years. And the news is particularly good for women. Full-time employment is 1.8% higher for women now than it was in March 2020.

Many businesses are struggling to fill lower paid job vacancies, which is unsurprising given the number of jobs being actively recruited for. With more jobs available now than there have been in over a decade, why would job seekers apply for or accept lower paid positions when there are plenty of options to choose from? However, larger businesses also seem to be struggling to find ‘suitable’ staff.

When you look at what’s happening in the health and safety arena, the story is even more interesting.

Australia’s health and safety job market

According to IBISWorld, nearly 2800 Australian businesses operate in the WHS services industry, providing advice to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for employees in every industry, and employing close to 13,000 people. In the five years to 2020, demand for specialised WHS services grew, though a lack of business confidence and strong competition decreased profitability in the sector. In the next few years, IBISWorld analysts expect an increase in business confidence, registered WHS companies, and WHS industry revenue.

While that’s a lot of health and safety consultants, there are even more in-house WHS managers. Of course, not all roles are created equal and the differences in employment statistics are, in some cases, startling.

  • The award wage for a health and safety officer is $877.60 per week.
  • The average health and safety advisor is 44 years old and earns nearly $1580 per week. 83% of employees in the sub-sector work full-time (46 hours per week), while 42% of the 16,200-strong workforce is female. The average health and safety coordinator earns around $1410 per week and nearly half of the workforce is female.
  • The average health and safety manager, however, earns a little over $2080 per week, not counting any bonuses, and around 43% of the workforce is female (in our experience, this kind of stand-alone manager-level position and pay level are offered in lower risk industries).
  • On the other hand, the average occupational health and safety manager earns around $3365 a week. This salary level would typically be offered to a mid- to senior-level safety leader in an industry where there’s a relatively high level of risk.
  • The average safety inspector (which includes occupational health and safety inspectors), is 48 years old and earns about $1875 a week before tax. 84% of employees in the sector work full-time (46 hours per week), while just 20% of the 4,300-strong workforce is female, and the size of the workforce is predicted to grow.

Overall, the health and safety job market is experiencing similar challenges to the broader Australian job market. However, the reasons appear to be different.

The impact of COVID-19 on HSE job roles

While COVID-19 forced employers to shed large numbers of roles in other sectors, in the health, safety and environment (HSE) sector, COVID-19 increased workloads and introduced the need for additional staff as organisations scrambled to implement new safety protocols and cope with increasing levels of anxiety and other mental health and wellbeing challenges.

As just one example, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources conducted a review of workplace mental health and wellbeing across the Australian Public Service and published its own Safety, Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

Over the past year, we’ve seen HSE professional roles change so that staff have often been required to:

  • Develop new workplace protocols specifically related to preventing the transmission of COVID-19 but also in relation to working from home and managing mental wellbeing
  • Introduce new technology to meet changing requirements, especially remote work, WHS training and virtual onboarding
  • Introduce virtual safety inductions
  • Increase the efficiency of their HSE teams to complete more work with the same resources and in the same amount of time
  • Implement new incident reporting arrangements

In addition, the types of challenges faced changed. For example, ensuring staff have ergonomic setups while working remotely has been a significant challenge for many WHS staff. HSE professionals also now assist staff with mental health issues far more frequently — because many people have been struggling with financial stress, isolation and adjusting to working from home. In fact, WorkSafe Australia has reported that 34% of COVID-19 related worker compensation claims as at 31 July 2020 were related to the mental health impacts of COVID-19.

Many HSE professionals have also struggled to find effective ways to communicate with broader organisational staff as a result of flexible and remote work arrangements.

To combat the challenges associated with COVID-19, we’ve seen many organisations introduce new programs or modify their existing ones, including:

  • Employee assistance and engagement programs
  • Programs that provide increased access to mental health professionals as well as benefits that help with maintaining good mental health
  • Wellbeing apps
  • Online training
  • Programs designed to help staff with their financial planning

As a result of all these upheavals, many organisations have found the need for additional HSE staff or new HSE capabilities. This has meant a significant increase in the number of health and safety roles being advertised.

In particular, we’ve seen an increase in the need for such skills as industrial hygiene, health and wellbeing, and operational HSE leadership. Consequently, we’ve also seen more demand for these types of specialist roles.

Interestingly, in line with the trend in the broader employment market, many employers are having trouble filling their HSE vacancies. However, in the HSE sector, this is not because there is a lack of foreign workers.

At HOK Talent Solutions, we’ve found the following to be the most common reasons for recruitment challenges at the moment:

  • Many employees really appreciate how much effort their employers went to protect their jobs and pay during lockdowns and so feel a greater sense of loyalty than was common in the past
  • Those employees who might have considered moving under normal circumstances are reluctant to take a new position, believing newly advertised roles to be less secure and more likely to be axed in the event there are additional lockdowns
  • Significant numbers of employees are unwilling to give up the flexible work practices they’re currently enjoying (and given the high percentage of women employed in this sector, this is not unsurprising as women are more likely to appreciate flexible practices that enable them to work while also fulfilling parenting roles)
  • Some of those people willing to move to a new role are reluctant to apply for positions that require a COVID-19 vaccination
  • Due to the amounts of competition for skilled employees, those people who are actively applying for new roles are often being offered several positions, so only the most attractive vacancies are being filled

How you can use the current state of the health and safety job market to your advantage

The current job market is unique — there has never been, and may never be again, another situation quite like this one. So, this is a particularly challenging time to be recruiting or applying for work.

In the coming weeks, we will publish additional articles about how to navigate the current HSE job market and what employers need to think about if they are trying to fill a HSE job vacancy.

As always, we are here to help.  Get in touch for a confidential and supportive discussion about your OHS career.


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