Monday, 18 June 2007
Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007
Time and time again since I came into this House nine years ago, I have raised the issue of the need to recognise trades and services as occupations. I am almost starting to feel like a cracked record. It is exciting when you have been raising an issue that you can then come in and talk about the way in which it is being addressed. It is with extreme pleasure that I support the Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007. A strong and growing economy requires skilled employees. Assistance that is provided under our initiatives will encourage many young people to consider technical and trade training to ensure that we have a skilled workforce to meet our future work needs in Australia.
For around 29 years, my family business, of which I have been a part at various stages, has employed apprentices. We saw the initiatives that were in place and were then displaced by a significant push towards ensuring that every child had a university education. Again, as I have said in this House many times, I do not dispute that there are many students who should rightly go to university but there are many students—about 70 per cent of those attending high school—who do not go on to university. These students were made to feel less adequate, less worthy, in many of our schools because they did not want to pursue a vocation in higher education or a university degree. I thought this was very sad and I have raised this on numerous occasions over many years before even coming into this House. As a parent of three very bright boys, I was continually harassed and had peer pressure applied when people asked about where my boys were going to university. Each of my boys had individually decided not to go to university but to get a trade. The view was that I was letting my children down by not forcing them to get a university education.
None of my children wanted a university education. They wanted to do a trade and, as I said, they are quite bright and were doing very well at school. I recall those days very vividly. I would have to explain why my children wanted to pursue a trade and not do a university degree, even though their marks would easily qualify them for any degree they chose.
I recall those days of fostering apprentices in our own business and encouraging young people to be apprentices. I urged them to be absolutely proud of their vocation and the work that they did and to feel worthwhile. Many of the students who did work experience with us were relegated to the back of the classroom because they had no ambition, because their ambition was only to do an apprenticeship. I thought that was extremely difficult for those young people and their families because they really did know what they wanted to do.
Time and time again, we recognised that we could no longer get essential services dealt with in our electorate—services such as building, concreting, bricklaying, carpentry, joinery, electrical wiring, panelbeating, mechanical engineering. We were going to be confronted with a significant trades, services and skills shortage. To the government’s credit, it recognised this issue. Again, I have brought this matter to the attention of the House many times. It is my experience that many of the apprentices who started in our business went on to have their own businesses. I assisted them to set up their businesses, which were in opposition to ours, and to set up their bookkeeping systems and help them along the pathway. The benefit of having a qualification is that you become a price-maker rather than just a price-taker. I am very proud of the people who started their working lives with our family business and who moved on to find their own premises, start their own businesses and employ many other people simply because they had a qualification recognised by insurance companies when they were required look at their business and skills.
I am very proud of people who can build a house, starting with a plot of land and ending up with a fabulous home full of innovation. It never ceases to amaze me how clever some people are, such as concreters and those who work with their hands. Many children are excellent with their hands but may not be able to manage the theory. Many of our apprentices over the years could pass all of their practical tests but were unable to pass their theory tests, but that was the way they operated.
It is fabulous to see how the number of apprentices has grown under this government. I do not know how the member for Throsby had a reduction in the number of apprentices in her area. Maybe it is a problem of living close to Sydney city and the migration that occurs out of the areas around Wollongong. That is certainly not my experience. In October 2006, I announced that in the electorate of Riverina there was a 164 per cent increase in the number of apprentices since 1996 when the coalition was first elected. Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed that as at October last year there were 3,750 apprentices in training in the Riverina electorate, up from 1,420 apprentices in March 1996. I am not quite sure why the member for Throsby has had a downturn. The figures released showed that nationally there were 403,600 Australian Apprenticeships in training in the March quarter in 2006, a 161 per cent increase since the coalition was elected in 1996. The report also showed that in the 12 months to 31 March 2006, there were significant increases in commencements of Australian Apprenticeships, including in higher level qualifications and Australian school based apprenticeships. Nationwide, commencements of Australian Apprenticeships grew to 271,100, an increase at that time of five per cent. And the significant thing is that the number of completions of Australian Apprenticeships grew to 142,600, an increase of six per cent. And there was a six per cent increase in the number of females taking up Australian Apprenticeships. I found that news sensational.
The difficulty faced in rural and regional centres was highlighted by a mum who contacted me just a few weeks ago about her son. Apprenticeship wages are very low. They are recognisably low. I grappled with this well before I was elected. I ran a taskforce when I was on Wagga Wagga City Council to see how we could change that. There are lots of times when small businesses are not able to afford higher wages. Whilst they might have one tradesman, if they employ an apprentice they might end up with half a tradesman and an apprentice because the tradesman’s work capacity is reduced by the amount of time spent teaching an apprentice. Taking on apprentices reduces the return to the small business. This lady contacted my office a few weeks ago to say her son, who lived in a town outside Wagga Wagga, was travelling to and from Wagga Wagga daily. With the price of petrol extraordinarily high and all his travelling, his wages were so low that, although he loved what he was doing, he was considering leaving that job because his overheads and costs were so high. He could probably move to an industry in the town and become a meat process worker, which is where young students end up in many rural communities. But he really did want to do this apprenticeship. That was actually before the budget was announced. I was thrilled when I was able to send this mother the details of our top-up payments that would come into play so that she could pass them on to her son.
The wage top-up is fantastic for first- and second-year apprentices under 30 who are undertaking an apprenticeship in a trade occupation that has been included on the migration occupations in demand list. They will be eligible to receive $1,000 for each of the first two years of their apprenticeship. The payment of $500 will be made bi-annually to full-time apprentices at the six-, 12-, 18- and 24-month points of their training. Part-time and Australian school based apprentices will receive $500 annually up to a total of $2,000. That wage top-up measure joins a range of other measures, including the tax-free $1,000 Commonwealth trade learning scholarship and an $800 tool kit under Tools for Your Trade. Another new measure that was announced in the budget last year—maybe it was two years ago—was a $500 fee voucher to assist with the cost of course fees. Those are real benefits for apprentices and are extraordinarily welcomed by those on very low wages.
If you can get a top-up and pay $500 towards the cost of your course fees, it is pretty significant. Once you have worked for a period of time you are able to keep your tool kit. From memory, you have to work for three months, and after you have worked for another six months you are able to keep your tool kit. That is really important because sometimes it takes an extraordinary amount of attention to be able to fund your tool kit to do your apprenticeship. We have done all of these things over a number of years, since the Prime Minister said that a qualification in a trade is every bit as valuable as a university degree, and have absolutely focused on ensuring that our rhetoric actually meets the requirements.
I turn my attention to how New South Wales Labor has assisted with apprenticeship training and funding. They raised TAFE fees by over 300 per cent. That is how New South Wales Labor wanted to assist young apprentices and resolve our skills shortage in rural and regional Australia: they actually raised TAFE fees by over 300 per cent. You can stand in this House and talk about issues, but it is about doing things. When I listen to what has been said in this House, it seems like the old ‘do as I say, not as I do’ syndrome. There is no doubt that the Howard-Vaile government has absolutely focused its attention on apprentices, trades and services, and for this I am very grateful. I have seen many people in my electorate who have been enjoying financial success in trade and service areas. It is indeed a vital investment for our social prosperity, especially in our rural and regional areas. It is also a vital component of the survival of many of our small communities. Quite often in rural and regional areas you see the export of our most valuable commodity: our young people.
I must compliment New South Wales TAFE, Riverina Institute, because their dedication has been extraordinary. The dedication of the teachers in New South Wales TAFE has been absolutely fantastic in ensuring that the apprenticeships that the Australian government funds under the new apprenticeship system are offered to many places right across my electorate. I pay due credit to Rosemary Campbell and her New South Wales TAFE teachers right across my electorate because I am finding that many of our young people are getting great opportunities, funded by the Commonwealth and delivered by the state TAFE system. I do not have a technical school in my electorate. I hear some discussion every now and again in local media that the New South Wales government might put a trade school in Griffith, in my electorate, but as yet I am unaware of the detail of that. When I look at the way in which life and politics should run, I see that it should be a joint initiative to ensure that the kids of Australia who want to get a trade—whether it is in hairdressing, panelbeating, mechanics, electrical engineering or whatever career they want to have—are assisted as easily as if they were attending a university course.
We have to remember that, until the Howard government decided to assist apprentices and provide more funding, the only money that was provided to assist any student was provided to university students in HECS relief. That is pretty incredible. We have now rectified that extraordinary position and those children, who have every right to access a career of their choice, are now being assisted through this process. It is with great pleasure that, rather than coming into the House and raising the issue as something that has not been addressed or should be addressed even further, I come into the House to congratulate the government on announcing these initiatives.
In addition to the other accumulative benefits that the Howard-Vaile government has been providing to apprentices and young people, particularly in the electorate of Riverina, I reiterate what a sensational success they have been in my electorate, with a 164 per cent increase in the number of apprentices since this government took office in 1996, when the coalition was first elected. Rather than having to come into the House on a continual basis and raise the plight of the trades and services areas, to have 3,750-plus apprentices now in training in the Riverina who are able to take advantage of these warm gestures of the Howard government brings me great pleasure. In conclusion, I commend the bill to the House and urge government to consider even further benefits for the apprentices who will make up our skilled trades force in the future.