OPINION

Education a game changer for regional kids

They belong to a school of less than 200 kids, and they live more than 750 km from Sydney. But last week, Warialda Public School's Under 13s rugby union team etched themselves into the history books - crowned the State Rugby Union Champions for 2019 in Sydney.

With just a handful of kids to choose from to make up the team, this group of boys beat the State's best - and even got a phone call of congratulations from the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

While some people worry that growing up in a regional or rural location will somehow disadvantage their kids, this story is a classic example of how living in regional Australia opens doors. Just ask the kids at Warialda Public School.

I know their parents would agree.

When people choose a location to live in, the education of their children is one of the important factors they consider.

The availability of a job - a good job - is also key in that decision-making process and ultimately can provide the impetus to move.

At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), our work this year is showing that there are multiple "drivers of desirability" which influence a worker's decision to move for a job.

This month alone, there are 46,000 jobs available in regional Australia, and that figure is still growing at a faster rate than our metropolitan areas.

Many of these roles are professional positions and offer attractive salary packages.

However, the similarity in the mix of job vacancies across regions means that suitable workers have the option of moving almost anywhere in Australia.

This means that regions are competing with others for workers with similar skills, and that workers will choose the places with greatest appeal.

Normally, in a functioning labour market, population growth would follow these high labour demand growth rates, and unemployment in a region should fall.

But these trends aren't happening in some parts of regional Australia. In those regions we have an unwelcome situation where jobs are going begging, while population declines.

Regions need more good people.

We need people in our overcrowded cities to see the opportunities in regional Australia and make the move. This includes both Australian-born residents and migrants.

But we also need to grow from within.

Rebuilding regional learning options in both the VET (trades) and tertiary sectors is critical to the growth of regional Australia.

And at the moment, we are going backwards.

Last week, former Victorian Premier Dennis Napthine released the report of the committee he chaired looking into the engagement and outcomes for post-school education for young people from rural, regional and remote Australia.

The report shows that the current system is going backwards for these young people.

"As a result of the greater academic, geographic, social and financial challenges they experience, regional, rural and remote students are much less likely to undertake and complete tertiary study... Rates of participation and attainment in higher-level tertiary education have been increasing across Australia in recent years.

However, the rate of increase has been faster in metropolitan areas than regional areas, resulting in a widening of the disparity in attainment between metropolitan and regional areas."

The Federal Government has broadly accepted the committee's seven main recommendations.

This is important, as better regional skilling pathways would, over time, enable local residents to build the skills they need to enter the workforce, and continue to develop their skills through their working lives.

It would position them for better jobs in the places they already know.

Moving up the qualification ladder will bring an increase in real wages, an increase that will be secure for the long term.

As the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman said: "Productivity isn't everything, but, in the long run, it is almost everything. A country's ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker".

This is much easier with higher levels of human capital, as people move up the ladder of skills and qualifications. So, improving access to post-school training for regional people really is a win for everyone - the nation, the region and the individual.

The Napthine report says: "Investments to overcome the disparity in educational outcomes between metropolitan and RRR areas will 'future proof' Australia and provide the foundation for national success".

Regional Australia has many opportunities, and the kids at Warialda Public School are testament to that.

While they are succeeding on the sporting field, as a country, let's make sure their future opportunities in the workforce are just as bright in regional Australia.

Dr Kim Houghton, co-CEO Regional Australia Institute