Energy Skills Australia’s Energy Industry Apprenticeship Progression Management System Report Launch, Wollongong, 22 March 2016

IMG_2205a.jpgFor those of you who are visitors to our area – welcome.

The Illawarra is a region still undergoing significant transition as we work to retain our manufacturing base and to broaden the industries that offer employment opportunities for our population.

Bernard van den Bergen (Chair of Energy Skills Australia), Sharon Bird (Shadow Minister for Vocational Education), Bill Nagle (Chair of EIAPMS Steering Committee) and Bob Taylor (CEO - Energy Skills Australia)

The role of apprenticeships and traineeships is a critical component to this task.  They are a pathway for young people into work and for mature age people to change career directions. Despite the importance of the scheme it has been cut to the bone under both the Abbott and Turnbull governments – there has been nothing agile or innovative about their support for the next generation of tradies. 

Across our region, which includes three federal seats – my own of Cunningham as well as the seats of Throsby and Gilmore – we have seen the loss of 1,319 apprentices in training since June 2014. That is a 19.4% loss of opportunities to gain skills and employment for locals.

So, this conference and report launch have certainly come at a very interesting part of the election cycle given the extraordinary moves by the Government yesterday.

This federal election year certainly got off to a chaotic start in the vocational education and training sector with the publication of a leaked document proposing a federal takeover of the whole sector, including apprenticeships.  However it should be noted that the previous Minister, having at first refused to comment, then tried to downplay it as simply “for discussion”.  The new Minister has now said he has a personal view that it’s not such a great idea, which is at sharp odds with his senior portfolio Minister, Simon Birmingham, who kicked the whole process off with strong statements about the need for a takeover – it will be interesting to see what policy position actually makes it to the election.

Given how many crises in the sector that the Government already has on its hands as a result of both a failure to act quickly and appropriately to problems as they have emerged and extensive cuts and dismantling of proven programs and expert advice, I would suggest that their time would be more productively used on these matters.

Given the value that communities across the country place on the vocational education sector, including apprenticeships, the Government will need to have a lot more to say about their view of this important education and training sector than they have done in the past.  At the last election they said virtually nothing about the sector and their only announcement was the plan to introduce trade support loans for apprentices.  However, they never told these same apprentices that this would involve axing their Tools for Your Trade payments.  I am sure that everyone concerned about these pathways to employment will be demanding much more transparency in this election campaign.

Since the election of the federal Liberal Government we have lost 122,400 apprentices since the last federal election according to the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research report released this month.  There has been a 19.3% drop in commencements and a further 6% drop in completions. 

The Federal Government’s record is appalling on apprenticeship promotion and support. It includes $1 billion in cuts to apprenticeship programs such as the mentoring program, the apprentice access program and the Apprentice to Business Owner program in the 2014-15 Budget; apprentice support was replaced with apprentice debt through the abolishing of the Tools for Your Trade Program; Australian Apprenticeship Centres were rebadged with a cut to funding; the Joint Group Training program was abolished; and cuts were made to support for adult apprentices. 

It is significant to note that the report you are releasing today utilised these programs, including other Labor initiatives that were abandoned by the Government – specifically the apprentice mentoring program, the apprenticeships advisers program and the accelerated apprenticeships program.

This Government has developed no new incentives to address the drop in apprentice numbers much less to get ahead of the game by looking for innovation and opportunity in this sector. 

Many of these programs of the former Labor Government were targeted directly at support and extension of the apprenticeship scheme, recognising how important this pathway is to young people into the workforce and for an increasing number of mature workers into new fields of employment. 

This project, I would argue, has achieved a very significant outcome – the apprentice retention rate of 93%.  This is a truly significant achievement as the completion rate for the Certificate III electrician trade qualification had previously remained consistent at around 62%.

Training the next generation of trades qualified people has to be a critical task for all governments – participation rate improvements rely on training our people for the existing skill shortages and equipping them with the quality of training that allows them to deal with a much more rapidly changing workplace.

In August last year we saw reports of the significant impact that emerging and ever-evolving technology will have on how we work and, therefore, how we train the workers of the future.  It is abundantly clear that innovation will be key to how we teach, how students access education and training and how businesses utilise the innovative capacities of their workforce to grow and succeed.

Most of you would be aware that the Foundation for Young Australians at that time released their report, The New Work Order: Ensuring young Australians have skills and experience for jobs of the future, not the past”.

This report showed that approximately 71% of young Australians currently in VET courses are preparing for occupations where at least two-thirds of the jobs will be automated over coming decades.

These developments demand of us all that we ensure all of our education and training enables the next generation to have the underlying knowledge and skills they will need in all employment sectors to, not only manage change, but to grasp it and utilise its benefits.

E-Oz’s environmental scan for 2014 describes a significant shift, or “disruption” as the more trendy version is described, in the energy sector.

In the section “An Internet of Things” we see a great description of this major shift in the energy grid network from ‘behind the meter’:

“Each of the technologies… can become parts of an internet of things which together provide new ways for the various players in the energy market to interact … the combination of smart metering with intelligent consumer appliances and systems will extend the networks to another layer, bringing the local ‘intranet of things’ from behind the meter, into the internet of things.”

The report identifies further that:

“Via the internet of things consumers will seek optimisation and maximise benefits by being able to (either automatically or by human intervention) take into account how all elements of the consumer’s local ‘intranet of things’ eg a home, business or factory, work together. This will be facilitated by the consideration of historical, actual and predicted costs and usage data to inform consumer choice.”

The report rightly concludes:

“The deployment of these technologies require that new technical and service skills to be available, within applicable regulatory frameworks, to support the installation, calibration, interconnection and synchronisation of intelligent appliances and systems at various scales, both within and between networks.”

This is no small challenge and it points to the importance of dedicated and well-trained professionals driving the VET sector, capable, themselves, of adapting and deploying innovation to meet these challenges. As stated in your environmental scan:

“Leading developed nations are now establishing ‘early warning systems’ to quickly detect the onset of trends and building agile vocational training systems capable of responding once issues are identified.”

Labor understands that when we talk about innovation it includes work performed by trades qualified workers, and we understood this in government.  This project was the direct result of that understanding and commitment to developing all of our trades and para-professional career paths.

As this document outlines, in 2010 an Expert Panel on Australian Apprenticeships was commissioned to provide the Labor Government with advice on reform options for the Australian Apprenticeship system.  This led to the report delivered in February 2011, A Shared Responsibility – Apprenticeships for the 21st Century.

The then Minister, Simon Crean, said at the time:

“Australia’s apprenticeship system was hit hard by the economic downturn,

“To aid recovery, the Australian Government implemented the Apprentice Kickstart program which encouraged employers to take on more than 24,000 apprentices between December 2009 and February 2010. This saw a return to normal levels of commencements for apprentices over the summer months, instead of the decade it took the Opposition to restore numbers during the last recession.

“Yesterday I also announced 500 pre-apprenticeship places in South Australia, as part of a $20 million nationwide effort to help disadvantaged kids, Indigenous kids and those who have dropped out of school prepare for apprenticeships,” Mr Crean said.

“This Government has made a very strong commitment that unemployment should not be an option for our kids.

“Building on this, the expert panel will suggest reforms to strengthen the Australian Apprenticeships system to meet the skills needs of our growing economy.”

New programs for apprentice support and new agreements between federal and state government were developed to deliver a rejuvenation of the apprenticeship pathway to work.

The Energy Industry Apprentice Progression Management System project was one of the trial projects funded to investigate new ways to maximise the apprenticeship system.

For this reason I was very pleased to accept the offer to officially launch the report – it certainly provides excellent feedback to policy makers on aspects of the apprenticeship system that can be reformed with the support of industry, unions, students and training providers.

This is a discussion we must have and it must be an important part of the national debate in this election campaign. Education at all levels, including vocational education and training, is a critical aspect of economic growth, participation and productivity and I can assure you that, as Bill Shorten has said numerous times, it will be a key part of Labor’s agenda that we take to the people.

Already we have announced a National TAFE Priority Plan designed to work with the States to, for the first time ever, determine the role and responsibility of public provision in the sector and to determine an appropriate funding arrangement to guarantee that TAFE across the country can do its job.

Last week we further announced a full sector-wide review to complement the work of the Gonski Panel in school education and the Bradley Review on universities – it is time the vocational education and training sector had an equivalent review of its quality, funding and accessibility.  The reputation of the sector has been seriously attacked by the behaviour of shonky and unethical players and it needs stability and confidence restored.

This report on your program is an important body of work and I congratulate everyone involved and commend it to anyone with an interest in the future of Australian apprenticeships.

Thank you