If we’re to believe what we’re told, Australia’s apprenticeship system is in crisis, with plunging numbers following cuts in government support.
In last year’s federal election campaign, Bill Shorten claimed the number of people “in training for an apprenticeship” – note that tricky wording – was “now at its lowest level since 2001”.
Spending cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull government had “seen apprentice numbers fall by more than 120,000 since the 2013 election”.
In May this year, Karen Andrews, Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills in the Turnbull government, said the objective of a new government fund was to “restore the number [of apprenticeships] to 2012 levels, when Labor’s withdrawal of employer incentives contributed to a massive decline”.
Earlier this year, a joint statement by the three biggest business lobby groups claimed that apprenticeships had declined by 45 per cent since June 2012 and urged the Turnbull government to “take urgent action to avert an imminent crisis in our apprenticeship system”.
Not to be outdone, the ACTU claimed in last year’s election campaign that the Coalition had “ripped funding out of apprenticeship programs”, resulting in a “catastrophic drop in the number of apprentices learning their trade”.
When you remember the almighty hash that federal and state governments of both colours have made of their efforts to smarten up TAFE colleges by making vocational education and training “contestable” by for-profit training providers, it’s not hard to believe that, between them, the former Labor and present Coalition federal governments have stuffed up apprenticeships.
Fortunately, however, you don’t have to believe it. It isn’t true. For their own reasons, the people I’ve quoted – Labor and Liberal, employers and unions – are seeking to mislead us about the state of the apprenticeship system.
This is clear from a report published this week by the highly regarded higher education expert Professor Peter Noonan, and Sarah Pilcher, of the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University.
Let me ask: What do you understand the word “apprenticeship” to mean? Do you take it to mean the system that’s existed for decades where young people work in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, commercial cooking and hairdressing, and undertake about four years of training before becoming qualified tradespeople?
Now try this: Have you heard of the “traineeships” that the Hawke government invented in 1985 to reduce youth unemployment by providing job and training opportunities for young people in service sector occupations not covered by traditional apprenticeships?
They typically last for only a year or less, and are common in retail and hospitality, admin, childcare and aged care.
Get this: when all those people I quoted spoke of the “apprenticeship system”, what they were actually referring to was those short-term traineeships. Gillard crackdown
There’s been a huge fall in the number of traineeships since 2012, because the Gillard government decided to crack down on massive rorting by employers and training providers of changes in the traineeship system made by the Howard government.
There has been a modest fall in the number of traditional apprenticeships since 2012, but this is despite the absence of any change in the full funding of traditional apprenticeships.
No one would understand the distinction between apprenticeships and traineeships better that Shorten, the minister responsible, the employer groups and the ACTU.
None of them would fail to realise that the public worries a lot more about trade apprenticeships than about short-term service sector traineeships.
So when they chose to depict a crackdown on employer rorting of traineeships as a crisis in the apprenticeship system, they knew full well they were misleading us. Bureaucratic obfuscation
But how did they think they could get away with such deceit? That no Peter Noonan would blow the whistle on them?
Here’s the bit you’ll have trouble believing. It sounds like it’s straight out of Utopia.
They thought they’d get away with it because, some years ago, some genius in the federal government decided to add the traineeship figures to the apprenticeship figures and call them all apprenticeships.
You know, add oranges to apples and call them all apples. Good one.
So far has that bureaucratic obfuscation gone, that actual figures for apprenticeships and traineeships have disappeared.
You can, however, divide the so-called apprenticeships between trade apprenticeships (the real ones) and non-trade “apprenticeships” (actually traineeships). Existing-worker traineeships
The number of traineeships has long been a lot greater than the number of apprenticeships, which tend to vary with the strength of the economy. Even so, commencements have increased in some categories: carpenters, plumbers and electricians.
But the number of traineeship commencements ballooned after 1998, when the Howard government took a scheme aimed at encouraging employers to hire more young people, and made subsidies available for training of existing employees, of any age.
The report says registered training organisations, apprenticeship centres and brokers “aggressively marketed” these existing-worker traineeships.
“A business model emerged whereby employers would share the incentives with registered training organisations, who then delivered training, too often of questionable duration and quality,” the report finds. Employer subsidies
By 2012, the peak year before the Gillard government’s restrictions took effect, 44 per cent of all traineeship commencements were for existing workers. About 18 per cent of all “trainees” were aged 45 or older.
The Howard government also decided in 1998 to make employer incentives available for part-time traineeships and apprenticeships.
“This decision . . . also created a market in Commonwealth employer subsidies, through which firms could shift their part-time and casual youth workforces (including full-time school and university students) into part-time traineeships,” the report says.
“This had a dual benefit for employers – they were able to pay trainees the national training wage (below the relevant award) while also claiming employer subsidies, with training provided fully on the job.
“Major retail firms and franchises, in particular in the fast food industries, took full advantage of these incentives.”
Now why do I find that easy to believe?