Human resources is likely to emerge as the next big area for small to medium sized businesses as they wrestle with the challenges of a new industrial relations environment and skills shortages.
Just as advisers and other vested interests surfaced in the lead-up to the introduction of the GST, the same trend is occurring in IR.
The Resolution Centre, which provides contract negotiation services and commercial 'alternative' dispute resolution will soon launch templates for SMEs without human-resources capabilities, to assist both employers and employees in negotiating individual workplace agreements.
"It starts to build a positive awareness of lR reform," managing director Katie Graham said.
Another potential benefit is that it can be a way of retaining valuable staff at a time when the sector has been grappling with a skills shortage that shows no signs of abating.
The St George-ACCI Business Expectations Survey released last week showed that business has continued to hire more staff.
"The marked improvements by the index level since 2003 in conjunction with the high labour cost indexes, demonstrates bow tight the labour market has become." it said.
More Specifically, a sector such as the printing industry, which is populated by SMEs, noted in a September quarter survey that employment levels were forecast to increase during the December quarter.
PricewaterbouseCoopers Business Insights' latest survey of medium sized companies confirmed that labour shortages had emerged as a key issue. Nearly three-quarters of businesses surveyed reported a shortage of skilled labour, compared with two-thirds the year before.
Most businesses have responded to the problem by increasing the workload of existing staff, using temporary staff or contract staff, and allocating more overtime.
PwC criticised such measures as unsustainable. "Companies that increasingly rely on temporary or contract labour may, in fact, be exacerbating the problem."
The most remarkable finding, it reported, was the failure of most businesses to put into place long-term measures to combat the shortage of skilled workers.
SMEs that introduce such strategies will find a growing list of organisations waiting to advise them. But not all outsourcing organisations would be suitable, warned Beth Walker, director of the Small and Medium Enterprise Research Centre (SMERC) at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.
She advised training and professional development organisations targeting SMEs to drop a one-size fits all approach when they sold their services to small businesses. "In order to develop training that is relevant and applicable to small business, training providers need to understand the audience better:”' she said.
"Small business is not a scaled down version of big business, so current service products and programs need to be tailored to suit the needs of small business.
"A key issue for most small business owners is that they are time poor, so training has to suit their availability."
Ms Graham agreed. She said her organisation tailored its workplace agreement templates and training to individual businesses.
In a recent study; SMERC showed how tailoring services was important based just on the age of SME owner-operators.
"Older owners said they need less general management training and more specific information and communication technology-related training, and the reverse is true of younger owners." Dr Walker said.
Older owners said they preferred training that was either on the job or workshop-based, she said, adding that they were less interested in a formal qualification than acquiring a skill.
The least preferred method of training delivery was online or self· paced CD. As this was likely to increase, thought needed to be given to making it a more attractive option for small-business owners, and new technology, such as podcasting and vodcasting, needed to be considered.
"Podcasting is a technology that enables an audio event to be captured and fed into a website and disseminated to listeners via any portable digital audio-device or computer. Vodcasting is identical to podcasting but enables video to be downloaded.
"These technologies might not suit older business owners but may appeal to younger owners," she said.
• Small businesses may need outside help drafting workplace contracts to attract staff amid skills shortages.
• Few outsourcing providers understand the specialised needs of smaller operations.
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