Australian Workplace Practitioners' Network (AWPN) National Conference 2015, Jasper Hotel, Melbourne

It is nearly two and a half years since I last spoke to you and, interestingly we have both had changes of title since then!  I was very proud of my time as Parliamentary Secretary, then Minister, for Higher Education and Skills and the Labor Government’s commitment to workplace language, literacy and numeracy and the development of national strategies for foundation skills.

Foundation skills are a significant aspect of an individuals’ ‘human capital’ – their educational attainment and achievement, their ability to enter and engage in the labour market, further develop their skills and value to an employer, increase their level of wages and their standard of living. 

Higher levels of human capital are linked to better labour market outcomes. People with higher levels of literacy and numeracy are: 

  • More likely to participate in the labour market
  • More likely to gain and retain employment
  • More likely to earn higher wages

A 2014 study by the Productivity Commission – Literacy and Numeracy Skills and Labour Market Outcomes in Australia - into the relevance of literacy and numeracy on employment prospects demonstrated that ‘there is a positive association between education and employment’ and that increases in literacy and numeracy increased the employment prospects for both men and women.

You would all be aware that the recent Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) report indicated that some Australians have a low level of literacy and numeracy – 14 per cent are able to read only short texts and 22 per cent can carry out only simple mathematical tasks such as counting – Level 1 of 5 levels measuring competency in literacy and numeracy tests. 

Increasing literacy and numeracy levels is important, not only to individuals, but is imperative for our society and for our economy. Foundation skills contribute to the development of other aspects of human capital, including non-cognitive skills desired in the work place such as perseverance and leadership.

AiGroup released a report in 2013 titled “Getting it Right – Foundation Skills for the Workforce” which highlighted the critical importance of language, literacy and numeracy to Australian work places.

Across the nation we have industries in transition such as manufacturing, we have industries with emerging growth pressures such as aged care, we have new skill demands across all workplaces with the continual introduction of new technologies.

The task of skilling and upskilling our population through higher levels of literacy and numeracy and by growing the investment in vocational education and training is more important than ever. OECD studies show that in advanced economies, jobs growth in the 21st century will be predominantly in the occupational areas requiring certificate or diploma level qualifications, those most often acquired through vocational education. 

In government Labor made record investment in skills and training of over $19 billion in five years.

Our commitment to training included adult foundation skills training for both employed and unemployed people who need it to advance their employment opportunities.

Young people who do not complete Year 12 or a vocational qualification, displaced workers and new arrivals often lack basic literacy, numeracy and employability skills, locking them out of the jobs market. Better access to training in foundation skills is critical for reducing unemployment amongst the most disadvantaged Australians. Australia’s $1.6 trillion economy simply cannot afford to have so many people not being equipped with basic skills.

And yet, the current government has abolished programs such as:

  • The National Workforce Development Fund,
  • The Workplace English Language and Literacy program,
  • Australian Apprenticeships Access Program,
  • Apprenticeships Mentoring Program

During my time in Government with Ministerial responsibility for these areas I was able to visit many workplaces where both the National Workforce Development Fund and the Workplace English Language and Literacy programs were being utilised to upskill existing workers.  I heard first hand from many of them about their positive experiences and how important their new qualifications were to them and to their employers.

Many of these workers had not studied since leaving school, often before completing matriculation courses and they were anxious about having to undertake formal training.  They were extremely proud of their success and had developed a renewed love of learning.

Interestingly, two of the visits were to workplaces whose CEOs are addressing your conference this year – Villa Maria in Melbourne and Redarc from Adelaide.

I visited Villa Maria in July 2012 with the then Member for Scullin, Harry Jenkins, to announce that the partnership of Villa Maria and Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) would receive $130,000 for three WELL training projects to deliver vital workplace training to more than 100 employees. 

I note that Victoria Jacques, the General Manager, participated yesterday in your panel of champions for foundation skills. Villa Maria as one of the largest providers of disability and senior services in Victoria employed many staff from a range of backgrounds and had been working with NMIT to deliver language, literacy and numeracy training to staff since 2007.

An evaluation of the WELL program at the time had found that it delivered real benefits for businesses through its training projects and was highly regarded by employees.

The evaluation showed that across the country, businesses were seeing impressive outcomes with 79 per cent achieving improved workplace performance, decreased occupational health and safety incidents and reduced wastage and of those business surveyed, 78 per cent rated the program as either effective or highly effective in improving literacy and numeracy and meeting business needs.

A few months later in September 2012 I launched the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults at Redarc Electronics in Adelaide with the State Minister and local MP, Amanda Rishworth.  You may be aware that Amanda is now the Shadow Assistant Minister Education and Higher Education and last week became a Mum for the first time with the arrival of little Percy James. 

South Australian Minister, Tom Kenyon, joined us as the Strategy was a joint Commonwealth and state and territory government publication and, as you would well know, set out a collaborative approach across both levels of government to encourage broader engagement in foundation skills programs.

We were also given a tour of the upgraded facilities and met many enthusiastic staff.  Redarc Electronics had received funding under the WELL program to provide literacy, numeracy and coaching skills training to over 75 staff in partnership with TAFE SA.

The CEO and Managing Director, Anthony Kittel, really is a champion of investing in his staff’s education and training and I meet him quite regularly at events supporting vocational education and training. I note that Anthony delivered an address yesterday on “The power of foundation skills – Redarc’s experience and employers’ perspectives.” Whilst I couldn’t be here for the address I have no doubt it continues their great tradition of valuing education and training, including the critical foundation skills.

I would also like to acknowledge the session delivered by Michael Hartmann, the CEO of Forestworks, the industry skills council for this employment sector.  I think it is very important to note the pro-active and engaged activities by industry skills councils over many years to enhance the access and take-up by their related industry sectors of the programs for foundation skills delivery – before these programs were abolished of course. And, of course, this is epitomised by your platinum sponsor for this conference – Manufacturing Skills Australia and its outstanding CEO, Bob Paton, whose passion for all education and training is well known to me. It is one of the reasons I believe it has been an extremely short-sighted decision by the current government to de-fund these industry bodies.

Forestworks also were successful in 2012 in receiving a WELL Strategic Project grant to improve awareness of language, literacy and numeracy gaps and to identify strategies to address them in the forest and forest products industry.

One of the best things a Government can do to help Australians get a job is to invest in education and that includes foundation skills training, apprenticeships and general skills programs. In the current economic climate, the area of skills and training should never have been the target of savage Budget cuts.

The Government has axed programs to help people gain access to foundation skills training, has axed programs to assist workers increase their literacy and numeracy levels in the workplace and abolished programs to upskill workers to help them through workforce changes into the future.

This is in stark contrast to what we should be doing, which is investing in training so that our students and workers will have the skills needed to help them get and keep a job.

During periods of economic downturn it is young people and low skilled workers who bear a disproportionate share of job losses. Many face an on- going struggle to find meaningful employment once recessions are over. G20 countries have recognised the important issue of youth unemployment and have committed to monitoring the progress of member countries to address this problem since the Global Financial Crisis.

An OECD/ILO report, “Promoting Better Outcomes for Youth (Sept 2014)” presented findings for the G20 Labour and Employment meeting.

The report identified that low-skilled youth are particularly affected by unemployment.

Once in employment, they are more likely to be in low quality, low paid or ‘precarious’ jobs. In this context, the challenge remains to generate high quality jobs and ensure young people have the skills they need to get and retain those jobs. Poor foundation skills condemn many young people to poor integration into the workforce where patchy and low-paid work becomes the norm.

The mis-match between what industry wants and needs – and the skills that young people bring to the employment equation – must also be overcome. ‘Skills mis-match’ is a problem common to G20 countries, both advanced and emerging countries.


Well qualified young people – over qualified for the jobs they are doing – co-exist with young people who lack the foundation skills required for productive and on-going employment.


Despite this clear evidence of the importance of investing in foundation skills, in December last year the Abbott Government again took the axe to skills funding in its mini-Budget, cutting over $200 million in important skills funding.


The Budget update cut $66 million in support for Adult Australian Apprentices and slashed over 10,000 training places from the Skills for Education and Employment program.


The Adult Australian Apprentices program was put in place to remove barriers to completing an apprenticeship and to encourage up-skilling for adult workers over the age of 25.


Adult apprentices studying a Certificate III or IV could receive $150 per week (up to $7,800 per year) in the first year and $100 per week (up to $5,200 per year) in the second year of their apprenticeship.


I have met with a number of adult apprentices who have told me how tough it is in later life to start their apprenticeship. They have said it is extremely difficult to live on first or second year apprentice wages while they have mortgage commitments, families and often child care expenses.


Axing these payments directly undermined adult apprenticeships. Simply offering them another debt through the Trade Support Loans Scheme is not an acceptable replacement for direct assistance for apprentices who already have financial commitments.


The Abbott Government at the same time axed $43.8 million from the Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) program abolishing over 10,000 training places. The SEE program, of course, helps jobseekers to develop speaking, reading, writing or basic maths skills to improve their chances of getting and keeping a job.


It is clear that the Abbott Government just doesn’t seem to understand or care how hard it is for people with numeracy and literacy problems, to get and keep a job. These cuts will make it so much harder for our unemployed people to improve their skills to help them enter into training or work. 


Now we are in the period where we can only anticipate a further harsh Budget.  There must be no more cuts to vocational education and training programs, particularly those providing the foundation skills that are critical for jobseekers and low-skilled workers.


With general unemployment continuing to rise, including youth unemployment, the Government should be looking to help people gain the skills and training they need to enter the workforce – not cutting these services.


Labor will fight to protect the living standards, jobs and opportunities of low and middle income Australians.  Labor will do this because we believe in a strong economy that delivers for all Australians and doesn’t leave people behind.


I would also like to touch on a few other topics that you have been considering at this conference and indicate my support for their importance to delivering the foundation skills needed for a modern economy that provides opportunity for all Australians to be participants.


The world of work, and indeed, the ability to participate in civic and community life is increasingly requiring a population with new literacies – including in financial and digital knowledge and skills.


I note that later today Judith Walker from ASIC will be talking to the topic “Financial literacy: A Skill for Life”.  As a local MP I am constantly dealing with issues for constituents that have real and often very significant financial effects for them.  From the large and often devastating impacts the collapse of Trio Capital had for hundreds of local Illawarra constituents to personal frauds on individuals through internet scams, and most recently the impact of people making ill-informed judgements in signing up for VET Fee-Help loans.  It is all too often clear that the lack of foundation knowledge of financial instruments and transactions in many of these cases is at the heart of why some of these people were vulnerable to these events.


Our personal and work life is increasingly complex and people will require better understanding of the financial sector to be a more informed consumer.  It is critically important to developing this literacy that people have a solid grounding in both literacy and numeracy from which to build their expertise in financial literacy.


This more complex world also encompasses a more digital life – for work and play, for solitary reading and family skype catch-ups, for shopping and submitting health claims.  Each of you could easily add to this list to reflect your own daily life I am sure.


Like financial literacy, being digitally literate is increasingly a requirement for full and meaningful engagement in economic, social and civic activities.


I also note that Ben Macklin from the Federal department of Communications is addressing this conference on “Digital literacy – Creating Technology, not Consuming Technology.”


Again, like financial literacy, digital literacy requires a solid grounding in language, literacy and numeracy skills.


I have mentioned in commenting on financial literacy, the examples of unscrupulous recruitment of many educationally disadvantaged people by some brokers and RTOs to courses that are totally inappropriate to their skills and knowledge level and the willful ignoring of their real capacity to achieve the qualification.


I note from your conference program that this is an issue being well canvassed in many of your sessions, in particular, the development and utilization of appropriate tools for fairly and realistically assessing the language, literacy and numeracy skills of potential students in order to direct them to the most appropriate studies and to identify what support they will need to succeed.


On this matter I would like to acknowledge the important steps that the Government has announced it will pursue through legislation, standards and regulation.  Only in the last sitting fortnight we were able to support the Government’s National VET Regulator Amendment Bill.  Whilst we had some difference in regard to a few details, at the end of the debate we acknowledged the Bill was an overall positive and were able to support it.  Despite the Government voting down our amendment in the House to get the ACCC involved in this work I am glad that the Government had a change of heart last week and has sought the cooperation of the ACCC in addressing these problems.


It is critical to ensure the private provision of vocational education and training is delivered by ethical, quality-focused providers.  It is also Labor’s determined view that our public providers, TAFEs across the country, must be supported and strengthened given their critical role in setting a benchmark for access, cost and quality; for ensuring thin markets such as regional and rural areas are covered; and for delivering broader community service obligations.


I would also like to pay tribute to all of you who deliver training courses day by day to people who most need a hand up to work or further study.  I would indicate to you that, in my view, the preservation of the qualifications and professionalism of your sector requires vigilance by governments as well.  It is not an easy task to accurately assess an individual’s gaps in knowledge and skills, to effectively develop a program of study, to engage and motivate your learners, and to fairly but honestly assess their progress.  I thank you for your very important efforts in this task.


Finally, Labor Shadow Ministers have been tasked by Bill Shorten with developing strong policies this year.  I want to ensure that in my shadow portfolio area that people such as yourself are able to inform that process and so I offer you a sincere invitation to provide comments, feedback and ideas.  It doesn’t have to be a formal submission – please feel free to just drop me an email with your comments.  I will genuinely welcome your feedback.


Thank you for your invitation to join you today and I look forward to working with you into the future.