Small business weakness a surprise in economic strategy

THE empty shops along Quay St are a good indication that all is not well in Rockhampton's small business sector, but Mayor Margaret Strelow said it was still a surprise to see just how weak it is compared to other areas.

That was one of the most concerning things to come out of the Rockhampton Region Economic Development Strategy.

Rockhampton has 60 small businesses per 1000 people, significantly lower than the national average of 90.

"This weakness hasn't just developed in the last 18 months, it has been a factor of our economy for at least a decade," Cr Strelow said.

"We didn't even have a Chamber of Commerce for many years, it's only just started up again. Of all things that's probably really symptomatic of a business culture that is weak."

One of the report recommendations was to introduce a council-owned economic development organisation focused on supporting business growth and investment.

The region's top employers are in health care and social assistance (16%), retail trade (12%) and education and training (10.5%).

However, the two industries with the largest number of businesses are construction and agriculture, with 865 and 581 businesses respectively.

On a positive note, the report did say youth retention rate was very high, which it attributes to the presence of a strong tertiary education facility.

But while Rockhampton does have a slightly higher level of workforce participation than the national average, Year 12 completion rates and post-school qualification levels were both low.

The report attributes this to a historically high demand for positions in mining, industrial and transport occupations where higher education qualifications may not be required, which means there may be fewer incentives to undertake higher education.

"Given the recent deterioration of the global market for coal, this reliance on unskilled and unqualified employment, both locally and across the region, represents a considerable risk for the Rockhampton economy."

Cr Strelow also said this was disappointing considering the availability of CQUniversity and TAFE.

And while the unemployment rate has slightly improved to 6.7%, it's still above the state average.

"This structurally higher unemployment rate mostly reflects Rockhampton's role as a major service centre in Central Queensland," the report said.

"The availability of a range of government social services, as well as supporting public tertiary health services, means Rockhampton is home to a higher proportion of people who are unemployed."

Council's regional development executive manager Russell Claus said he believed the region had done a poor job marketing itself. "We have to prioritise and action those (report recommendations) according to what resources we've got, and according to where we're going to get the biggest bang for our buck."

Cr Strelow said many of the recommendations were already being implemented.

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