Monday, 18 June 2007
Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007
Under the Howard government’s stewardship, Australia has been plunged into a chronic skills shortage which has been driven by a government that has failed to recognise the economic signals that point to the need for investment in training for the future. One of the first acts of the Howard government was to slash funding to TAFE. As a consequence of that slashing, TAFE was forced to increase fees to remain viable. It has also led to a reduction in courses.
The legislation that we have before us today, the Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007, is supported by this side of the House, as anything that can be done to encourage young people to undertake apprenticeships is well and truly welcomed. We must recognise that in Australia we are part of a global economy and the most important element of that, from Australia’s perspective, is that we have a trained, skilled workforce. That is so important to our economy and so important for the future.
The legislation before us today honours a budget commitment to provide $2,000 over two years to Australian apprentices who are under 30 and are undertaking an Australian apprenticeship in a trade occupation identified as experiencing national skills shortages. Coming from the Hunter area, I know that employers are unable to fill positions because there is not the skilled workforce, and I know that there are many young people who would like to undertake apprenticeships who are being denied the opportunity.
This payment will assist young people who are undertaking apprenticeships and it very much reflects the proposal Labor introduced back in 2005. There is an enormous skills shortage and it is very important to encourage people into traditional apprenticeships. That is something that I do not think that the government has done. Members on the other side talk about the number of apprenticeships that have been undertaken under its stewardship but, when you really analyse those figures, you find that they are not in the area of traditional apprenticeships or traditional trades.
Labor has previously announced a trade completion bonus, which has been mirrored, in part, in the budget and in this piece of legislation. Because it will be beneficial, we on this side of the House will support the legislation. But I must say that I find myself much more inclined to reflect on the amendment, and I will talk on it a little bit later. It is important to note that first- and second-year apprenticeships can be particularly difficult. This is when apprentices have very low wages. Therefore, top-up payments really help young people when they are undertaking an apprenticeship. I have spoken to many young people in my electorate, and they have emphasised to me how difficult it is and how they struggle to survive while they are undertaking their apprenticeships.
Earlier, in the Main Committee, I spoke on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Workforce Participation report, entitled Current vacancies: workforce challenges facing the Australian tourism sector, that was tabled in the parliament earlier today. Mr Deputy Speaker Barresi, you were chairing that committee when we talked to an employer, a restaurant owner, in Cairns. He put to us that one of the issues for apprentices and also for employing people in that industry was the need to bring some sort of equity into their wages. That is where the apprenticeship top-up payment will be quite useful.
Full-time apprentices will receive $1,000 per year: a total of $2,000. Part-time and school based apprentices will receive $500 annually over a longer time frame, once again totalling $2,000. This will be for trades which are experiencing skills shortages. Looking at the report that was tabled, which looked at skills shortages in the tourism industry, I think that there is probably not a trades area which is not experiencing skills shortages, be it electricians, chefs or any trade that is associated with that industry. So anything that can be done to encourage young people to undertake training in the traditional trades is very welcome.
Many young people withdraw from their apprenticeships before they complete them, for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons, I believe, is the wages that they receive. When their mates are out there earning higher wages, many young apprentices will look to the now and not look to the future, when by completing their studies they would end up on a much higher wage in the long run. The latest annual figures show that in 2005 nearly 130,000 apprentices and trainees cancelled or withdrew from their courses. Whilst the government often talks about 400,000 apprentices in training, it fails to mention—and this is a point I think is very important—that only 140,000 of those apprentices are completing their training, and less than a quarter of those in training are undertaking traditional apprenticeship training.
This legislation looks at that traditional apprenticeship training, an area that is of vital importance to Australia as a nation because it addresses the skills shortages that have been allowed to emerge in our country. The average number of traditional trade apprentices under this government has been about 120,000 a year. The sad fact is that, under the Hawke and Keating governments, it was 13 per cent higher, at 137,000. When you look at the completion rate for traditional trade apprenticeships, in those areas where Australia faces the greatest shortages, the government’s record is even worse, with only 24,700 traditional apprentices completing their training in 2005.
We need the completion of those apprenticeships and we need to have many more young people undertaking apprenticeships. This government has really let Australia down in that regard. Whilst there has been an increase in new apprenticeships, the areas where we have the real skills shortages have not been addressed. This legislation should help to a degree. It should benefit young people such as those who have told me that the hardest part about completing their apprenticeship is not the training, not the study, but the fact that they are struggling financially whilst their mates are out there earning a larger income.
Skills shortages are not something that we on this side of the House have invented. They have been allowed to develop over a long period of time by the government. The government has withdrawn funding from the states, from the TAFE colleges. I think this to some extent has been driven by its ideological hatred of the states and its opposition to public institutions such as TAFE colleges. The fact that it has withdrawn funding from TAFE colleges has created quite a problem. Earlier this year, I was talking to some young people in my electorate who were trying to undertake pre-apprenticeship courses at my local TAFE, Belmont TAFE. They had been unable to do so because the TAFE had had to cut those courses—a metal fabrication pre-apprenticeship course and an engineering pre-apprenticeship course—because they did not have enough money to run them. I was contacted by a number of young people in my area, and luckily I was able to find somewhere else for them. I think one of the young people was able to undertake pre-apprenticeship training at another college because he had parents who could take him there—it is quite a distance to travel and it is not on a public transport route. There were many barriers put in front of these people.
We have to properly fund our system as well as ensuring that our apprentices receive enough money to live on. This is one part of it addressed, but I met with TAFE teachers here in parliament a couple of weeks ago and they highlighted to me the inadequacy of the funding from the Commonwealth to the states for courses within the TAFE system. Funding would lead to the training of many more tradesmen in the future and is desperately needed in this time of skills shortages.
In his address-in-reply to the budget the Leader of the Opposition undertook that, if a Labor government is elected later this year, Labor will provide a trades training centres in schools program. It will provide $2.5 billion in capital funding over the next decade to build new trade centres in all of Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools. It will focus on providing state-of-the-art trade workshops in the areas where we have skills shortages, and information and communication technology facilities and equipment to promote the teaching of vocational education. Schools will be able to apply for funding of between $500,000 and $1.5 million to build trade workshops, computer laboratories and other facilities. These initiatives will all lead towards a highly skilled workforce and make sure that our young people have the skills and training that they need to address the issues of the future so that we can continue to be a country that can compete globally, rather than ending up being a Third World country.
I would now like to turn to the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister. Part of that amendment dealt with Australian technical colleges. The first point I would like to make is to ask where the three new colleges will be built. The second point I would make is that, as was highlighted in the shadow minister’s second reading amendment, by 2010 these Australian technical colleges will have produced only 10,000 graduates, and we certainly need a lot more than that. I would like to share with the House how the Australian technical college program has been operating in the Hunter region.
In March last year, I met with two very distraught fathers. Both their sons were attending the Newcastle ATC. They were most concerned because their sons had enrolled at the college full of hope and expectations that they were going to get the skills they needed to become electricians. When they enrolled they found that there were no tools, there were no workbenches and there was not even a job placement officer. Two job placement officers have now been employed, but at that time there was not one. There was no work experience organised for the young people who were enrolling in the college. Even the teachers were saying that the college should not have started at the beginning of the year. It started in February, and it did so for one reason only: because the government insisted that it should do so.
I raised this issue with the minister and I put to him just how disappointed the families were and how let down they felt by a scheme that they thought would provide an excellent opportunity for their sons. Both students at that time were considering withdrawing from the college. By the end of March, not one of the 60 students who had enrolled in the course had started with an employer. Work experience had not even begun to be negotiated, workers compensation had not been negotiated and the college facilities were virtually non-existent. On the last weekend in March, the parents were going to gather together at the college and build the workbenches. They had already sought donations of tools. By the time I saw them, the tools were in place but the kids still had no workbenches.
I wrote to the minister and I received a response. In that response, the minister informed me that they were confident that activities were being undertaken to ensure that there would be work experience placements for the apprentices. He went on to highlight the positives about the Australian technical college system—talking about alternative pathways for year 12 senior students—and, of course, blamed the state government. He said that since I had written there had been a parents open day and information session at the Newcastle campus on 28 March, and he said that he hoped that the parents were happy following that. He really did not answer any of my questions. After I received the minister’s response, I rang the parents and I spoke to one of the young boys, Sam. As of two weeks ago, Sam still did not have a work placement. I rang on the day that he was supposed to be out on his work placement, and he was sitting at home waiting, because the government had failed to organise the placement. The government needs to do a lot more for young people like Sam. The government has let these young people down with its ill-planned ATC program. But I do support the legislation before us today. (Time expired)