Government’s apprenticeship review couldn’t come soon enough to address our skills shortage

The review will look at how, and presumably whether, the incentive system is helping.

The review will look at how, and presumably whether, the incentive system is helping.

Staring down the barrel of a critical skills shortage, the government has this week announced a review of how apprenticeship incentives encourage participation by employees and employers.

Any possible skills shortage has the potential to derail the locomotive of momentum that is building around the clean energy transition.

It is called the Australian Apprenticeships Incentive System Strategic Review, and is headed by former Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross and University of Canberra chancellor Lisa Paul.

Skills and Training Minister Brendan O’Connor said when announcing the review that “getting the best outcomes for apprentices and trainees is vital to ensuring we have the skills our economy needs”.

It sure is.

And while the context of unprecedented infrastructure spending to give effect to clean energy transitions by building the necessary projects – such as solar and wind farms as well as transmission lines – is relatively new, the shortage of skilled trades in Australia certainly is not.

Same problem, different times

Speaking at an Australian Industry Group function in 2004, the then-Prime Minister John Howard complained of what he described as Australia’s “deep and unfortunate cultural prejudice against people going into traditional trades”, citing the nation’s obsession with “the relentless ideal of everybody who leaves school having to receive a university education”.

There would be few times in life I would have found occasion to emphatically agree with John Howard, but on this point I most certainly do. And although attitudes have improved a little in the past 20 years, they still need to change a lot. 

Trades are still clearly seen by many, including those in our secondary schools, as a sub-prime option for the non-academic. 

So later that year, and following re-election for a fourth term, Mr Howard went on a further speaking tour to seemingly lecture all and sundry of the deep cultural and systemic issues which surrounded the take up of trades and led to the skills shortage faced by Australia at that time.

Appearing on John Laws’ 2UE radio show in October 2006, to bemoan the skills shortage being experienced during his fourth term in government, Mr Howard said “we haven’t got enough skilled people and it’s a problem around the world”.

After Mr Howard announced the incentive scheme proposed to fix the problem at that time, Laws challenged the PM, suggesting: “With respect, is this really some sort of acknowledgement that your government hasn’t done enough over the last 10 years that you’ve been in power, to skill-up young Australians?”

Of course not, said Mr Howard.

A new review

Eighteen years on from that incentive scheme, which was intended to fix Australia’s critical skills shortage, the current government has set out to solve the problems by first informing itself with a review of the system.

The review will look at how, and presumably whether, the incentive system is “helping the take up and completion of apprenticeships”, as well as cost-of-living pressures for apprentices and trainees and, crucially, how the system and the role of government support can support quality apprenticeships and trainees.

Also up for consideration will be the impact employers, workplace conditions and culture have on the uptake and completion of apprenticeship outcomes, with some focus on the extent to which the current system is creating an environment that encourages greater diversity in apprenticeships, such as by supporting more women and First Nations people into trades.

And the issue of under-representation for women in trades looms large, with that half of the population still only representing about 2 to 3 per cent of the skilled trade workforce, depending on whose statistics you rely on.

Hacia Atherton, CEO and founder of Empowered Women in Trades, an organisation that champions “tradeswomen, diversity and gender equality”, points to construction industry workplace culture as a stubborn obstacle, if not at least for uptake, then certainly for the alarming dropout rates of women in trade-based apprenticeships.

Citing data provided by the Commonwealth Department of Employment and Workplace Relations in a 2022 discussion paper which claims 72 per cent of female apprentices cancel their apprenticeship in the first year, Ms Atherton says that site culture continues to “repel women”. And with the data we have, that conclusion is sadly difficult to argue with.

Unique problems may support unique solutions

But 2024 is not 2006. Societal attitudes have changed, and social progress is embraced now in ways that may have been inconceivable two decades ago.

Looking headlong into the mammoth challenge that lies ahead if we are going to build the energy infrastructure required to transition away truly and reliably from fossil fuel power generation, there are unique and unprecedented opportunities for industry collaboration to reshape the model and deliver better workforce outcomes for people entering trades – women and men – and as a result, the Australian economy more broadly.

Those challenges don’t have an obvious solution, but they do have an abundance of obvious goodwill and support, which should be harnessed to enable government to support industry, and develop an apprenticeship training model that increases diversity, participation and completion of trade-based training.

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service

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