Blue-collar trades offer lucrative and fulfilling careers for millions of Australians, but the educational path to get there has become increasingly bumpy.
A recent report revealed the federal government had underspent its budget for TAFE, training and apprenticeships by almost $1 billion in the past five years. That’s on top of previous cuts.
At the same time Australia is experiencing a skills shortage, and critics are warning of serious repercussions for the country.
“If the Liberals don’t do something serious to fix the skills crisis they have created, we could be looking at the extinction of the Australian tradie,” Labor’s education and training spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said.
“Businesses are crying out for more trained staff. The Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need.”
At the time of its 2018 survey, Ai Group called for new approaches to education, training and re-skilling to maximise the benefits of the digital economy.
“Our survey has found major skills demand issues facing employers,” chief executive Innes Willox said.
“It provides an important gauge of employer sentiment around skill needs, education and training at a critical time for industry transformation.”
The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. These days, more trainees drop out of their study than finish it.
Trade and non-trade apprentices and trainees in training
In October, the Morrison government named TV host and former carpenter Scott Cam as the country’s first national careers ambassador.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Cam’s role would be to highlight how practical and technical training can lead to high-paying and fulfilling jobs.
“I want to see more Australians become plumbers, electricians and bakers than lawyers and consultants,” he said.
But the opposition and unions criticised Cam’s appointment, labelling it a stunt and an insult to young people. They have called for more money to be spent on TAFE instead.
What does all this mean for young Australians dreaming of a vocational career?
On the ground
Twenty-year-old Zac Hicks is a third-year apprentice electrician from the Sutherland Shire in NSW.
At some point in the next year, he will be eligible to sit the capstone assessment and – if successful – will officially qualify as an electrician.
That would set him on a path to becoming one of the best-paid tradies in Australia.
But first, Mr Hicks has to get through his study. That is proving increasingly challenging in a state that has suffered state and federal budget cuts.
He says students at his TAFE are offered little or no tutoring, despite the complex and technical nature of their course, and the tools provided are blunt or broken.
Worst of all, he’s just learned he has to wait months to start a required subject, setting back his entire apprenticeship.
“I’m pretty frustrated, because I’m on the minimum wage, and when the government is doing all these massive slashes to TAFE, it’s really hard to get to the main goal, which is a huge pay rise at the end,” he said.
“We’ve got to stick it out for another four or five months extra, when we could be making more than double what we get now.”
Mr Hicks earns about $17 an hour. Once qualified, he might earn as much as $50 an hour under an enterprise bargaining agreement.
“You have people working at Coles getting more money, and you’re struggling, and the TAFE can’t even offer tutoring,” he said.
“[My apprenticeship] is meant to be a 1100-hour course – and because of these cuts it’s leaving us in the deep end, trying to jam it all into, in some cases, 550 hours.
“We live in one of the best countries in the world, and they’re bringing up the younger generations like this?”
Electrical Trades Union national apprenticeship officer Mark Burgess said Mr Hicks’ experience was not uncommon.
“Some of the [electrical apprenticeship] theory is quite technical and in-depth. It’s really science based,” he said.
“That reduction [in class hours] leaves apprentices not trained as well and they struggle to pass, to be honest. Then they have to pay for tutoring themselves so they can get through.”
Mr Burgess said urgent changes were needed to ensure the broader industry was not affected in the long term.
“We’re seeing employers already crying out because of the skills shortage,” he said.
“Our industry has a fairly high average age; generally the baby boomers are looking to retire, and we’re concerned if there’s not enough apprentices put on soon, then it will get worse in the future.”
Fixing the problem
Mr Burgess said the issues could be rectified easily – with more government investment and policy changes.
“I think [the government] genuinely believes that vocational education is important. But it’s pretty well documented all the [funding] cuts that have occurred over the past five or six years and, from our perspective, that really is where the problem lies,” he said.
“We’d also like to see 70 per cent spent in vocational education and training on public education, rather than having a contestable market.
“We’d like to see mentoring support for apprentices. Higher wages would be a great thing to help with completion rates, and tools for your trade reintroduced.”
In this year’s federal budget, the government promised to create 80,000 apprenticeships by doubling employer incentives.
The announcement included $55 million of new money in a $525 million skills package.