Monday, 24 February 2020
Private Members' Business
Vocational Education and Training
I am very grateful to the member for Braddon for this motion. We desperately need more of our young people in vocational education. We need to fill the skills gaps in our economy, which in some trades are reaching crisis levels. I am grateful to him for laying out in his motion a great deal of the practical, targeted support that the Morrison government is providing those who want to take up a trade. The government should certainly be commended for their pragmatic approach and commitment to this pressing issue. Like the government, I want to do what I can in my electorate of Fisher to provide practical, real-world support for young people to help prepare them for the workforce. That is why I have developed and will shortly be launching my own new concept in Fisher: my Ready, Set, Go bursary program.
My Fisher Ready, Set, Go program will deliver a bursary up to $1,000 to one student in my electorate three times a year. I intend the make the bursary available to students living in my electorate who are in their final year of education and preparing to enter the world of work. That might be a school leaver in year 12, it might be a younger school student who is preparing to leave for an apprenticeship or it might be a university or TAFE student in their last year of study.
I will ask eligible students to make an application to me online, explaining why they need support to prepare for the workplace and what they would put the bursary toward. I believe that programs designed to support union jobseekers should be highly adaptable to individual needs, so I will not be providing a prescriptive list that lays out what these bursaries can and can't be used for. I am keen, however, to hear from students about what their needs are and what support would make the biggest difference for them in entering the workplace. From my discussions with students so far, I expect that I'll receive applications for bursaries for tools of trade; interview essentials, like a suit; training programs; support to attend a conference or an employment expo; and many other things. I've decided to run three rounds of the program—in April, August and November—and intend to open the very first round for applications as soon as my Fisher Community Awards are complete. Local students in Fisher who are interested in applying should contact my office for more details.
I intend to create, alongside my new Ready, Set, Go program, a vocational education, training and apprenticeships expo in Fisher. I look forward to setting the date very soon with the assistant minister, who has generously committed to coming along and opening it. The expo will bring together local Sunshine Coast employers offering trade roles and apprenticeships, training and vocational education providers, recruiters, employment service providers, Centrelink and others from the Sunshine Coast. It will provide a tremendous opportunity for local employers and recruiters to attract the coast's best talent while helping many of our jobseekers identify the right opportunities for them in our region.
I believe my new programs will be of significant practical benefit to employers and young jobseekers, but I believe they'll also serve a greater purpose in helping more of our region's young people to continue to live on the Sunshine Coast. I know that many of Fisher's young people love their beachside home and want to be close to their families, but too many feel they have to leave our community in order to fulfil their professional ambitions. With innovative, high-tech companies like HeliMods, Praesidium Global and Eniquest, financial service success stories like Youi and Huddle, and online and digital experts like IDCARE now operating in our region, the Sunshine Coast today can offer to ambitious young local people so much more than ever before. Fisher is fast becoming the place to be, not only for education and retirement but also for employment. I hope my new programs, combined with the terrific support from the Morrison government outlined by the member for Braddon, will show that in 2020 a person leaving education on the Sunshine Coast doesn't need to go anywhere else to build the career of their dreams or start a business that will take the world by storm. They can do it right on the Sunshine Coast, in the community that they call home. I know that their parents would rather they be close than move to the likes of Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.
This motion, bizarrely, congratulates the government on its reforms in the vocational education sector. On any objective analysis, these reforms have been an abject failure. The facts point to it. Every Australian knows that this government has decimated the TAFE vocational education and training system in this country and, in concert with Liberal state governments, increased fees for people looking to go to TAFE. The results speak for themselves, and the results are quite shocking. How can those opposite say that the government should be congratulated on these policies and that the policies have been a success when there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in Australia than when they came to government? There are now 150,000 fewer apprentices in this country than when those opposite came to government in 2013. How can they claim that as a success? It's an abject failure by any person's standard.
As a result, we now have skills shortages in a number of occupations throughout the country. Employers struggling to find workers to fill those skills shortages are instead importing workers from overseas. We're bringing in workers from overseas to fill the skills shortages that exist in Australia at the moment because this government decimated the TAFE system, which resulted in 150,000 fewer apprenticeships and traineeships. Fewer people have been graduating with the necessary trade qualifications to fill those jobs, with skills shortages as the result, yet those opposite want to congratulate each other.
In the TAFE sector those opposite have decimated the once world-leading technical and further education system we had here in Australia in our TAFE colleges. They've massively increased the fees. I put it to them that it's Liberal governments at the state level that have been doing this. In some cases, there have been 300 or 400 per cent increases in the fees for going to TAFE to do an apprenticeship or traineeship. Is it any wonder there are 150,000 fewer apprentices in the country, when they're doing things like that? They've also cut funding for TAFE. They've cut billions of dollars of funding from vocational education and training, predominantly from TAFE colleges. That's resulted in teachers leaving, courses closing and courses being basically contracted out to the private sector. Private sector providers are now coming in and taking over where TAFE was running good, solid public education courses for people in Australia.
We've got a nationwide skills shortage in a broad range of occupations. We're talking about occupations like plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing, motor mechanics. This government doesn't have a plan to fix it. We have a nationwide shortage of skills, without a plan to fix it. It means reinvesting in our TAFEs and our training facilities. It means employers working with TAFE, with other employers and with unions to make sure we're training Australians for the jobs that we need. Our national vocational system doesn't just need tweaks; it's crying out for genuine reform and genuine commitment from this government to invest in TAFE and ensure that we are producing the apprentices and the trainees who can fill these occupations into the future. Yet this government refuses to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the training sector in Australia.
If the Liberals don't do something to fix this skills shortage and this crisis that they've created in vocational training in Australia, we could be in a situation where productivity continues to fall in Australia, where we don't get growth in particular jobs in this country, where we are forced to import more workers into the country because of the skills shortages and where our economy starts to go backwards. This Liberal government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to work hard to build a better post-school education system. Labor has been very critical of the role that this government has played in undermining TAFE and the value that TAFE had in promoting vocational education and training in our community. The effect of overzealous application of competition policy and privatisation in this sector has left it chronically underfunded, with devastating effects on the sector and, as I mentioned, 150,000 fewer apprentices. Fewer people taking on trades—that's their legacy in vocational training.
I rise to support the government's commitment to strengthening the vocational education and training sector and the goal of creating up to 80,000 apprenticeships in the next five years. In particular, I support the implementation of the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package, which lays the building blocks for reforms identified in the comprehensive review of Australia's vocational education and training system, the Joyce review, as well as the improvement of the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network.
This investment in the vocational education and training sector is desperately needed, especially in regional towns across Australia, where employment opportunities are limited when compared to metropolitan centres. In my electorate of Mallee, many young people are leaving towns like Charlton, Wycheproof and Donald to pursue employment opportunities elsewhere. These towns are located in Buloke Shire, which has been identified as an area of focus for education and vocational training. In response to the desperate need for action in this shire, I facilitated a think tank forum between industry, education and government representatives, to discuss the issues facing the region and determine solutions to these challenges. It included representatives from the Local Learning Employment Networks, SuniTAFE and RTOs, along with employers such as Bernie Casey, who instigated this think tank, Troy Hendy and Meredith Taskers—26 people in all. Key concerns raised at the forum related to the complexity of the vocational education and training system, the desire to see more comprehensive career advice for students and, particularly, parents regarding apprenticeships, and the need to further incentivise employers to take on apprentices.
A number of the measures contained in the skills package work towards addressing the issues raised at the Charlton think tank forum, including the establishment of a national careers institute, the appointment of a nationals skills ambassador and additional and streamlined incentives for both employers and apprentices. The National Careers Institute aims to improve the overall quality of career development in Australia, with a specific focus on raising the status of vocational education and training. The appointment of Scott Cam as the first National Careers Ambassador re-enforces this focus.
From 1 July 2020 the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program will be streamlined and simplified, making it easier for employers to understand and claim incentives. This is particularly important for my electorate because of the additional incentives available to employers in regional and rural areas. These include the Australian Apprentice Wage Subsidy, which will support up to 3,260 eligible employers of apprentices in occupations experiencing national skills shortage, as well as the Rural and Regional Skills Shortage incentive, which provides $1,000 to all eligible employers.
Beyond the skills package, other government initiatives are making it easier for employers to recruit apprentices. The Australian Apprenticeship Support Network is a key component of the government's investment in vocational training, education and apprenticeships, and acts as the first point of contact for all apprenticeship inquiries. The support network provides personalised advise and support services to employers and apprentices, from precommencement of an apprenticeship to completion. A new contract for providers under this network has been developed, which will ensure that information is delivered clearly and efficiently. The support network can provide advice as to which financial incentives employers and apprentices may be eligible for. Through the improved Apprenticeship Support Network, employers and apprentices will be more able to navigate the system and get the most out of the apprenticeship. I support this motion because I want to see the vocational, education and training sector strengthened, I want to create more opportunities for young people in my electorate and I want to assist employers find and train workers for the future prosperity of their business.
With that being said, I don't doubt there is more work to be done in this space. A key challenge for vocational education and training is the provision of tertiary services. If apprentices can't access these services, they can't obtain their qualification. For areas like Buloke Shire, more service providers are needed. I recently met with Geoff Dea of Sunraysia Institute of TAFE. Geoff is keen to expand his organisation's reach into Buloke Shire but has been unable to do so due to shortfalls in funding. There is no substitute for local training, which is why we need to support local training providers like SuniTAFE to deliver these services.
I've spoken before in this place about my discomfort with these motions, which simply congratulate the government for its work. I worry about the value to Australian democracy. Members of the government stand and offer uncritical self-congratulations; members of the opposition stand and deliver unrelenting criticism. I don't know who benefits from it, but I hope that, somehow, in doing this we improve public Australian policy. When I stood for election I promised the people of Indi that I would try to do politics differently. From that perspective, I recognise the good work where it happens and try to offer practical solutions to improve what we are doing. I think that speaks to a question of integrity, and I believe all of us want that and all of our constituents expect it.
So when I consider the motion put forward by the member for Braddon I look at the good work that's been done, and I do congratulate the government for that. But there is more work to be done, especially in regional Australia. This motion celebrates the government's policies on skills and training, but those same policies are in many ways failing to deliver adequately for regional Australia. Let's look at a snapshot of education opportunity outside the cities. The government's own Napthine review found that high school completion rates are 80 per cent in metropolitan areas and around 65 per cent in regional areas. It found that people who grow up in regional Australia are 40 per cent less likely to get at least a cert IV and 50 per cent less likely to gain a bachelor degree or above than their city peers. Even VET enrolments are increasing faster in metropolitan areas than in regional areas. This lack of training opportunities is holding us back. The unemployment rate for people with a cert III or above is 3.9 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for those without one.
With more skills and training opportunities, we could start to tackle pockets of high unemployment across regional Australia, in places like the north-west of Tasmania, the member for Braddon's electorate, where youth unemployment sits at 15 per cent. The government's analysis indicates that if we halve the skills gap between metro and rural people it would increase GDP by 0.6 per cent or $11 billion every year.
There is a massive opportunity in regional skills that could be unlocked with the right policies. The Napthine review found that the most important thing was increasing access to training for regional Australia. We need to create training opportunities in regional areas for regional areas. The government estimates that the planned expansion of the NDIS will be required to find another 90,000 disability workers—double the size of the current workforce—and much of this will be needed in regional areas. The 2019 national mental health report shows there is a critical shortage of qualified mental health workers in regional areas. For those of us who live here, that is abundantly clear.
As Australia inevitably shifts to being run by renewable power stations across regional Australia, we will need thousands of skilled technicians, electricians and construction workers to drive a multibillion-dollar industry. We need to do more to create training opportunities for these industries, which could underpin our regional economy, by investing smartly in regional people. That is why I am thrilled that my own electorate is showing the way forward on this.
After the 'black summer' fires devastated much of the upper Murray, Wodonga TAFE is proposing a program called 'Recover, rebuild and sustain', to support the bushfire recovery through the development of the local skills base, to meet community needs now and into the future. The program would work with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to identify local skills and needs—like chainsaw operation and fence building—and support participants to obtain relevant qualifications through short courses and match them with local businesses needing those skills. Beyond the physical rebuild, the focus will turn to longer term needs, like mental health support, aged care, disability care and small business skills.
The member for Braddon's motion celebrates the importance of reforming the vocational education and training sector to better meet the demands of the modern Australian economy. While these are our needs—aged care, disability care, renewables, sustainable agriculture—we need to do more to support training for these industries. If we are to grasp these opportunities, the nation needs to invest, and I'll be advocating for the Wodonga TAFE Recover, rebuild and sustain program to receive funding as part of our region's bushfire recovery. I will continue to work with the minister for education to give regional Australia the best chance to thrive with the right training and education opportunities for a 21st century regional economy.
I thank the member for Braddon for moving this very important motion and I congratulate him for his advocacy for VET as a career pathway for young people in his electorate and more broadly. The member has raised a number of very important issues, but there are two aspects of his motion that I want focus on: the National Careers Institute and the National Skills Commission. I have said it before in this place, but it deserves repeating: Australia's capacity to grow, compete and thrive in an increasingly global economy is dependent upon employers and all individuals, regardless of their background or circumstances, being able to access and use the right skills at the right time. A strong VET sector, sitting alongside and hand in hand with a strong higher education sector, is critical to our economy and to helping prepare Australians for the workforce opportunities of today and the future.
We need our VET sector to be adaptable. We need an accessible, high-quality VET sector that is innovative, robust and responsive to industry needs and ever-emerging gaps. To be able to do that, we need excellent quality and timely research into our skills needs and our skills gaps and the best way of addressing them.
The National Careers Institute was established on 1 July 2019 as part of the 2019-20 federal budget Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow. The institute lays the foundation for the Australian government's commitment to strengthening and modernising the skills and career sectors and was a response to the independent Joyce review which examined ways to deliver skilled workers for a stronger economy.
The institute specifically focuses on a number of vital activities that are strengthening our VET sector. These are designed with the overarching principle of enabling all Australians to make more-informed career decisions at all stages of their lifelong learning.
The activities of the institute include research and stakeholder engagement. The institute is undertaking extensive research and stakeholder engagement on the state of the Australian and international careers sector. This allows the institute to map careers advice and services in Australia, with the aim of identifying gaps and overlaps. It's reviewing international best practice and it's also identifying governance models for career development agencies. To this end, the institute is consulting widely with governments, agencies and, most importantly, with industry, employers and education providers.
The second part of the activities of the institute is in relation to grants. The Australian government is setting up a $10 million competitive grant program to boost partnerships between industry, employers, schools and tertiary providers. Grants of up to $350,000 per year will support education providers, employment providers, industry and local government to work collaboratively to establish initiatives with a strong focus on filling and/or enhancing information and service gaps.
And, finally, the institute is also implementing the VET Information Strategy, which promotes VET as an equal-choice education option leading to successful careers. The strategy promotes a key message for the VET sector: real skills for real careers.
The second part of the motion which I wish to speak about directly is the National Skills Commission. This commission has been established to provide national leadership to the VET system. The commission will oversee the Australian government's investment in VET, and drive long-term improvements to the VET sector. It will undertake research and analysis of future skill needs across industry to ensure that government funding addresses national labour market priorities, including those arising from developing technologies. The commission's role and functions will be refined to ensure that the commission complements and enhances the VET system; improves coordination coherency and efficiency; and enables local and regional solutions.
There are over 1,600 people undertaking VET qualifications in my electorate of Curtin, and over four million nationally. It is therefore crucial that we have a strong VET sector that is responsive to the needs of people who are looking to upskill, to reskill or to adapt to changing times in a modern workplace. We are committed and excited about the future of VET in Australia. Our government has a clear plan for providing people with a strong foundation for their careers and for keeping our VET sector strong.
I rise to speak about policy measures that the government claims as evidence of its success in the employment, education and training space.
The numbers in this motion sound like impressive achievements. Without any context, they sound convincing. They are easily tweetable, shareable and likeable, and—if they're read in isolation—they are misleading. Some of the key points read as follows: 1.2 million jobs created since the government was elected; $525 million for a skills ambassador and other measures; 140,000 young Australians securing employment since the election; and, finally, the government welcoming the prospect of creating a further 80,000 apprenticeships over the coming five years.
Maybe that's like the 100 dams that the current coalition government was going to build. But—wait a minute—how many dams have been built? I think it's none! I, for one, welcome the prospect of the government solving the skills crisis that is of its own making. But my welcoming of that remote prospect won't make it happen. What's needed is serious and sustained funding, not pious wishes.
The magical effect of these context-free figures and these remote prospects evaporates when we put them against another set of cold, hard facts that don't appear in this motion. We have two million unemployed or underemployed people; we have 140,000 fewer apprentices than we did when the coalition took government in 2013; and we know that the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years, which is criminal, and that's on top of the over $3 billion—that's with a 'b'—ripped out of the overall system. So forgive my incredulity at reading the government's self-congratulatory motion about its wonderful achievements.
To spend even a fraction of the $525 million for a skills ambassador and other marketing measures to sell the message and to frame the narrative when underfunding TAFE by over $3 billion is an absolute dereliction of duty. It is a failure of leadership. I might say it's a bit typical of a government that loves the marketing and the politics whilst our kids haven't got the opportunities provided by VET. When it is so underfunded, it is very difficult to reconcile the previous speaker's words with the reality on the ground.
Let's have a look at the broader context, which is missing from the government's portrayal of reality in the motion. For more than seven years the Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocation training. It has neglected our TAFE and training system for seven years. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the growth of our young people—young Australians—and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. It has spent seven years cutting that $3 billion while also underspending the meagre amount it did promise the sector. Over the past five years, we know that the government has actively decided not to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TAFE and training that it had allocated. It's a bit like the NDIS: underspending which makes Australians worse off, whether it's people with a disability or our young kids trying to get a trade. Don't take this just on my authority. These facts weren't produced by Labor; they're from the federal education department's own data. It's important that we have the context around which the government is trumpeting $525 million for its so-called skills package.
I am concerned that the federal government is keener on spinning and deflecting, bringing in marketing teams and celebrity ambassadors to distract Australians from the real issue: the underfunding of the VET sector by this coalition government. It must stop.