The RDA Illawarra region stretches from Helensburgh on Sydney's southern rim to the South Coast village of Gerroa. The region encompasses an area of 1,128 square kilometres and includes the three local government areas of Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama with an overall population of approximately 283,000.

Wollongong City Council is the largest Local Government Area in the Illawarra region, covering 714 km2. Stretching from Helensburgh in the north to Macquarie Rivulet and Lake Illawarra in the south and bounded by the Illawarra Escarpment to the west, Wollongong LGA is home to over 192,000 people. Wollongong LGA is the principal industrial area in the region, with its manufacturing heart centred around BlueScope Steel adjacent to the port of Port Kembla. The region’s coal mines are also located in the Wollongong LGA. Coal from Illawarra mines is ideal thermal and coking coal. It is used in the production of steel at the steelworks and exported through Port Kembla. The University of Wollongong, one of Australia’s leading universities, is located in the Wollongong LGA. Its Innovation Campus at North Wollongong was established by the University to drive partnerships and collaboration between the research and business communities and is rapidly becoming a hub for innovative research. The employment profile of the Wollongong LGA broadly resembles the whole Illawarra region, although the proportion of Professional workers is higher than the Illawarra average.

South of Wollongong LGA is Shellharbour LGA, which covers an area of 154 km2, from Albion Park in the north, south to the Minnamurra River. Shellharbour LGA has a population of 63,600. The predominant industries in the Shellharbour LGA are retail and construction. Its close proximity to Wollongong LGA and its significant industrial centre at Port Kembla means that around 60% of the Shellharbour workforce works outside the LGA, with almost half of the workforce commuting to their workplace in the Wollongong LGA. The occupation categories of labourers, machinery operators and drivers, and technicians and trades workers correspondingly represent a higher proportion of the workforce in the Shellharbour LGA when compared to the Illawarra region.

Kiama LGA, the southernmost of the Illawarra LGAs, extends from the Minnamurra River to Gerroa and covers 256 km2. With a population of 20,000, Kiama LGA is the most sparsely populated LGA in the region and this reflects the largely rural nature of the municipality. Despite this, Kiama LGA has a workforce dominated by managerial and professional workers, accounting for approximately 40% for the LGA workforce, compared to a regional average of 30%. Kiama LGA is also a net exporter of labour, with 55% of the workforce employed outside the LGA, principally in the Wollongong, Shellharbour and Shoalhaven LGAs.

The Illawarra Escarpment portion of the Great Dividing Range forms the western boundary of the Illawarra Region and ranges in height from 300m to 700m. It forms a physical barrier around the region, particularly in the north, where the range forms part of the coastline. Finding passes through the range has limited land transport routes. The majority of routes are based on ones pioneered by explorers or cedar-getters. For this reason, land-based transport has always been a challenge for the region in its interactions with the rest of the Australia. The region’s geology continues to plague transport links out of the Illawarra, restricting the movement of goods and services into and out of the region.

The high Australian Dollar and the international downturn in steel demand have had a significant impact on the demand for steel from the BlueScope Steel plant. This reduced demand, along with increasing automation of the steelmaking process, has led to significant reductions in the labour needs at the plant. The Illawarra region has an unemployment rate greater than the National average and a significant youth unemployment rate. Diversification and development of new industries is a common need for the entire region, but is a particular need for the Shellharbour LGA, which is over-represented in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs categories. Reductions in employment in these job categories across the Illawarra will particularly affect families in this LGA. The creation of job opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the Shellharbour LGA is considered critical to ensure the economic health of the region.

The expansion of the port of Port Kembla is a particular opportunity for the region. One of the country’s deep water ports, the port has been effective as an alternate cargo handling facility to Sydney, as is proved by the car import facility at Port Kembla replacing the former facility at White Bay. Completion of the Maldon-Dombarton rail link will also increase opportunities for the Illawarra. This link will give the port direct access to south-western Sydney. The rail link will also allow export freight from western NSW (principally coal and grain) to access the port without being subject to curfews or the need to use the South Coast rail line. This in turn will significantly reduce the number of freight movements on the South Coast line.