Bold changes to the way vocational training is delivered in Australia is needed if we are to get the skills shortage under control. But neither political party have come up with key solutions to this massive problem, a leading construction industry group says.
A commitment by Prime Minister John Howard yesterday to devote a further $2.1 billion to fund up to 100 new Australian Technical Colleges is just the latest in a series of significant funding commitments to vocational training from both political parties in the lead up to the federal election.
It is not surprise that skills have been at the forefront of the election campaign. The availability of tradesmen in just about all areas declined significantly in the September 2007 quarter, according to a new Housing Industry Association survey, while businesses have been reporting that a lack of skilled employees is the major impediment to the growth of their business for months.
But Chris Lamont, senior executive director of industry policy with the Housing Industry Association, says both Labor and the Coalition are yet to commit to a key measure required to tackle the skills shortage: reform to the way apprenticeships are structured and offered.
“We encourage any investment in skills, but the concern remains in the actual curriculum and how it is delivered. The availability of trade teachers is a huge ongoing issue, but the biggest issue is that we have to see more intermediate qualifications provided in essential trade areas,” Lamont says.
The key issue that needs to be addressed, according to Lamont, is the 50% drop-out rate for apprentices. At the moment, if an apprentice drops out after two or three years of training they walk away with no recognised qualification, and are left with no way back into the apprenticeship stream.
“We believe these people should get Certificate 2 or 3 and be able to come back into the system later. At the moment they can’t, and that’s a waste to employers, of government funding and of the time and effort of the apprentices too,” Lamont says.
He argues that, whoever is elected, the Federal Government should tie special funding to the states to the introduction of the intermediate qualifications – and, he says, he would be happy to see the money the Coalition has promised for Australian Technical Centres reallocated for that purpose.
All this means that the debate between the Coalition’s new federally funded Australian Technical Colleges and the state TAFE system is a bit of a red herring. Not only do ATCs and TAFEs perform slightly different functions – ATCs offer trade skills for year 11 and 12s, while TAFEs are principally for high school graduates – but either way the issue of apprentice drop-outs remain.
However it is delivered, it appears that kids who start their apprenticeships in schools have one advantage: they are more likely to complete them, according to Mary Hicks, director of education and training with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“There is research now showing that when students start their apprenticeship in school, their retention rates are really improved. We don’t really know why that is yet, but certainly it is crucial that we both attract people to apprenticeships and keep them there,” Hicks says.