Monday, 18 June 2007
Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007
The Prime Minister himself said—and I quote for the edification of the Minister for Vocational and Further Education:
The technical colleges are the centrepiece of our drive to tackle skills shortages and to revolutionise vocational education and training throughout Australia.
In my view it was the case then, as it is today, that statements like this are statements of extreme hyperbole which do not really help to advance the cause of dealing with the huge problem facing the country.
As the minister knows, these colleges will at best train a maximum of 10,000 tradespeople who will graduate between the years 2010 and 2012. That is very fine for the young people who get the opportunity to go to those colleges, but how on earth is this a solution to tackling the skills crisis that is here with us today and that is growing every day? I can hardly say to businesses in the Illawarra, ‘Wait for the 315 young people who will graduate between 2010 and 2012 to fix the skills shortages that we know exist in our region today.’ So that solution, which the Prime Minister himself describes as ‘the centrepiece of our drive to tackle skills shortages’, is merely a drop in the ocean when the estimated skilled labour shortage today is in the order of 100,000 people, growing to more than 200,000 workers over the next five years. The government’s announcement was, in my view, a political fix to a policy problem, a problem that continues to grow and that still needs to be urgently addressed by the new minister.
I talked to a number of parents at the opening of the Illawarra Australian Technical College function. Naturally enough, they were all excited at the prospect of their children’s enrolment, but nearly all I spoke to referred to the load and pressure on these students. As we know, they are supposed to be studying for their HSC, undertaking apprenticeship training and working two days a week. For a 16- or 17-year-old, that is quite a sizeable load. I do not think any of the projections on the part of this government on the output of students from these colleges ever factored in the possibility of high drop-out and attrition rates because of that quite sizeable burden. In fact, the TAFE directors of Australia have also pointed to this problem. Their executive officer, Mr Riordan, said:
The Australian technical college model asks a great deal of 16- and 17-year-olds ... the prospect of drop-out rates is high.
When I raised the specifics of the Illawarra ATC with the minister, I was told in writing in answer to my questions that enrolments at the Illawarra ATC were to be 50 students at the start of this year. Minister, the 50 target was not reached. I understand that a number of students have since dropped out. I understand also that many of them have not been afforded an apprenticeship and employment with a local business, and it is my understanding that all their courses in the trades area are being done at the local technical college.
I ask you, Minister: if we are going to spend $19.6 million of taxpayer funds building a brand new college in Illawarra when we have perfectly reasonable facilities just down the road, is that a wise investment? If you divide $19.6 million by 315 students due to graduate over the next few years at maximum and compare that with the 300 students that have already been placed into an apprenticeship at a cost to the government of around $120,000 a year then I think I have every right to say to my community that this is not good public policy. I still have not had an argument advanced to me as to why these 315 students who are doing their trade training through the TAFE colleges need a brand new building, which will be constructed next year.
Having said that, as I have done in earlier speeches, I again query the value of the expenditure that the government is making on a system that at best will produce 10,000 tradespeople between 2010-12 when we have got a skills crisis today in many regions like my own. My views about this issue are confirmed by people who know even better than I do what happens in the TAFE and the vocational system. Martin Riordan, the executive director of TAFE Directors Australia, said recently:
We think it’s important to reassess the Australian technical colleges because, despite the best intentions in the world, they are a failed model.
After three years and more than half a billion dollars, the Howard government’s Australian technical colleges to date have not produced one graduate, have fewer than 2,000 enrolments, and have outsourced the bulk of their training to the existing TAFE system. On the government’s own estimates, we face a shortage of more than 200,000 skilled workers over the next five years. Again, on the government’s own figures, the ATCs will only produce their first qualified tradesperson in another three years and will see only approximately 10,000 students graduate by 2010. After a decade of underinvestment, the Australian technical colleges, in my view, are simply inadequate as the major response to Australia’s skills crisis. The longer the Howard government pretends that their Australian technical colleges will make up for more than 11 years of complacency and neglect, the more damage will be done to the future prospects of our children and our economy.
In conclusion, I reiterate that I do not accept the criticisms that people on this side of the chamber are not interested in apprenticeship training. As I have pointed out, I have had a longstanding involvement in my region trying to address the problem of high levels of youth unemployment and to match the prospects of our young unemployed people with an apprenticeship with many of the small and medium sized businesses in the Illawarra. To that extent, I want to again acknowledge the contribution and support for the maintenance of that initiative that has recently been provided—although I was quite disappointed that at the launch the senator who resides in the Illawarra was not gracious enough to make the point that the state government was contributing about four times the amount of funds from the federal government by underwriting the prevocational courses, the six months that are undertaken by these young people. It is a great pilot program. It has worked well, and I think it is producing results far more effectively than the ATCs. (Time expired)