The Hunter Region’s lack of highly-paid jobs could be greatly improved with a much bigger injection of state infrastructure funding, a leading academic says.
This lack of higher incomes meant less consumption and less opportunity, University of Western Sydney Professor Phillip O’Neill said
Only 6 per cent of Hunter residents earn more than $2000 a week, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.
The Hunter is slightly ahead of its regional neighbour, the Central Coast, an area where 5 per cent of citizens earn that kind of money.
In Sydney’s eastern suburbs, 17 per cent of people make more than $2000 a week.
Professor O'Neill, who teaches geography and urban studies, said there was an absence in the Hunter of “very highly paid professional services occupations, in particular law and finance”.
The decline of heavy industry like BHP and the sale of coal mines to global corporations added to a lack of senior positions, he said.
An exodus of senior positions in the region’s public sector since the 1980s and 1990s was also a factor.
Professor O’Neill said the Hunter had its positives, including a world-class university and TAFE, but “a lot of graduates from those institutions are forced to leave the region” to get good jobs.
Other attractive attributes included Newcastle Airport, the M1 motorway and Newcastle’s harbourside location.
But by world standards, the region was not competitive enough, he said.
He said it was difficult to think of any solution, other than a concerted government effort to attract a core of quality employers.
“There are good lessons in Australia to how governments can build concentrations of work,” he said.
“One is the Barangaroo project in Sydney.”
He said the NSW government had built infrastructure and partnered with the private sector to create this precinct.
“Barangaroo will yield 25,000 high-quality professional services jobs,” he said.
“If it takes that sort of effort to generate that number of jobs on the edge of Sydney Harbour in the middle of a global city, why would governments think that jobs can somehow spring up spontaneously in a regional city without similar effort?”
While the NSW government is spending $650 million to revitalise Newcastle, it is spending much more at Barangaroo.
Additionally, it is spending billions on the Sydney Metro rail system, which will have a station at Barangaroo.
“Every successful professional services conglomeration has excellent amenity for workers and high-speed transport and telecommunications connections,” Professor O’Neill, who lives in the Hunter, said.
Investment in Newcastle was “unbalanced because it’s biased towards residential”.
“It’s high quality residential and, no doubt, it’s the type of development that would attract qualified young professionals,” he said.
“But we don’t see the type of commercial and infrastructure development that significant employers would be looking for to invest in downtown Newcastle.”
As such, apartments would more likely attract retirees than workers, he said.
Newcastle City Council said it had, for years, been working with Hunter Development Corporation, Urban Growth and the Department of Planning to revitalise the city centre.
“Council has also examined the future role of Wickham, adjacent to the new commercial core, through the recently released master plan for the suburb,” a spokesman said.
“The vision sees Wickham evolving into a diverse and dynamic mixed-use precinct.
“As part of the master plan, proposals are being considered to increase building heights along the rail corridor to help promote the growth of employment opportunities, including service industries.”
Professor O’Neill said the Hunter was evolving into “a broader service-based economy”.
“The sorts of jobs that are typical of a population-based service sector aren’t highly-paid positions,” he said.
“They also include a higher proportion of casual and part-time positions.
“This gives you a larger number of people in the $20,000 to $30,000 a year bracket – almost certainly they are part-time and casual workers.”
The ABS figures show that 30 per cent of Hunter residents earn $15,600 to $41,600 a year.
Professor O'Neill said the coal industry had provided numerous jobs worth more than $100,000 over the last decade.
“Those coal numbers have backed away in recent years,” he said.
“There isn’t a high concentration of occupations in the Hunter that pay in excess of $100,000 per annum, at least as far as wages and salary earners are concerned.
“If anything, the likelihood of finding those jobs is diminishing.”