Stung by a looming skills shortage that threatens to derail the region's once-in-a-generation resources boom, Australia's mining and petroleum industry is looking to the moribund economies of the northern hemisphere to plug gaps in its workforce.

Western Australia state's training and workforce development minister Peter Collier will set off Friday on a 10-day tour of the U.K. and Ireland to recruit workers for the A$109 billion (US$116.9 billion) worth of development projects currently underway in the state.

"We face potential labor shortages in the hundreds of thousands," he said, pointing to government figures saying the state of 2.3 million people risks a shortfall of 150,000 jobs by 2017.

"With a boom in the resources sector you have special challenges. Industries like hospitality roll their eyes when they hear about a resources boom because they lose all their workers," Collier added.

Truck drivers can win salary packages well over A$150,000 (US$160,800) a year in the Pilbara, a barren, baking hot region in the north of Western Australia which accounts for 40% of the world's iron ore exports. That compares with typical financial-sector packages of around GBP100,000 in the U.K.

Adam Walker, director of Conduit Recruitment, a construction jobs agency in Sydney, said his office receives 20 to 30 applications a week from the U.K. and Ireland.

"They obviously think it's better over here and pretty bad over there. There's not much happening with construction in those markets and there's a boom going on over here," he said.

Australia's hunger for workers provides a close match to the dearth of construction jobs in northern hemisphere economies as they retrench from the financial crisis. Job cuts in the U.K.'s construction sector in June were the sharpest in five months, according to the monthly Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index released Monday.

However, matching workers to jobs is easier said than done.

Justin Paul, a consultant for Contec Recruitment in Brisbane, said that many overseas workers have a reputation for unreliability. "You get these Irish and English blokes, they sign them up, the guy works for six months and then wants to go to Thailand for the rest of the year," he said.

In addition, many of the skills needed in Australia are highly specialized. A bricklayer can't switch straight across to building an offshore oil platform, said Walker, although many employers may have to relax their criteria and agree to train people on the job.

Collier said he would be visiting jobs fairs and meeting recruitment companies in the U.K. cities of Leeds, Aberdeen and London and the Irish capital, Dublin.

"They'll come back on the plane with us if we can get them," he said.

The situation echoes Australia's history as a recipient of British and Irish migrants. After the Second World War, tens of thousands of British emigrants moved to Australia under a government program which saw them dubbed "ten pound poms", in reference to the subsidised cost of their ship tickets.

Shortages of workers have caused cost and time overruns on several major resources projects in recent months. The ExxonMobil Corp. (XOM) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) Turrum and Kipper offshore oil and gas joint ventures reported a 63% cost blowout to $4.4 billion in January because of labor costs and design changes.

BHP's Worsley alumina project south of Perth reported a $1.2 billion cost overrun last month, while the cost of Woodside Petroleum Ltd.'s (WPL.AU) Pluto gas export project rose by A$900 million.

   -By David Fickling, Dow Jones Newswires; +61 2 8272 4689; 
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