My family are all tradies – I know TAFE isn’t what it used to be and I know why

I come from a family of tradies.

My dad was a brickie. His dad was in the building game. As far as the eye can see in our family tree, on my dad’s side, are brickies, chippies, gyprockers, a sparkie or two, labourers, mechanics and builders. All blokes, of course. We’re talking about history here.

My three brothers are tradies, or once were tradies. Two of my three sons went through vocational training. My middle son went to TAFE when training to be a chef, and went again a decade later when he made the switch to become a carpenter.

TAFE colleges have been invaluable in helping many people start their careers. Picture: Louise Kennerley
 TAFE colleges have been invaluable in helping many people start their careers. Picture: Louise Kennerley

My youngest son was a mechanic for a few years before doing a teaching degree and working with challenging teens.

My eldest son owns a cafe and employs apprentices working their way through TAFE. 

I went to TAFE years ago to learn typing and shorthand as a cadet journalist. I went again with two of my sisters some time later for a semester of learning how to do basic sewing. Why I did that is lost in the mists of time. I’m rubbish at anything crafty. Possibly, I was there because I was the only one with a driver’s licence.

All I can remember is sitting in the back of the class where everyone else seemed proficient, and being banned from using sewing machines by myself because my threading skills were crap and I snapped way too many needles.

The other thing I remember clearly from that time is the first name of the woman who tried to teach us how to sew, and the pained expression and little sigh she gave every time I put my hand up for help. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I would have had a pained expression if I’d been trying to teach me.

Anyway, the TAFE colleges where I live – or “tech” colleges as I think of them, which gives the game away about how old I am – have always been significant institutions, because so many people around here attended them.

I live in a neighbourhood of tradies of a certain vintage. It’s close to the beach and we’re all on our seventh, eighth or tenth houses after buying land young years ago when there was land available that was reasonable to buy, and building and selling, building and selling until we own the ones we’re in. The great Australian dream.

The ratio of utes to homes around here is very high. And not just the pretty pretend utes whose owners spend too much of their weekends buffing and polishing them to a dazzling sheen, and bark orders to their kids about dirty shoes and sticky fingers.

No. I’m talking about proper utes, where a few bangs and dings from wheelbarrows, ladders and tools of trade thrown in the tray after a hard day on the job are a badge of honour. Those utes drive around here with a fine layer of dust and a bit of mud on the wheels. Their blokey owners give a smile and a nod and a fingers-up wave while their hands remain on the wheel, as a way of acknowledging they know you’re a local.

They sling boards on the back when the surf’s up. In summer salt-crusted towels join the crap in the tray or the crap around a passenger’s feet.

Every so often these real-ute tradie owners will hose their utes down but the interiors remain true tradie – dust on the dash, food wrappers and empty drink containers on the floor, pens and bits of paper here and there, sometimes ciggies, and a glovebox that could contain anything, from sticking plaster to measuring tape, car records to ticket stubs from a 1989 AC/DC concert, or tax documents that should have been lodged three years ago.

Being a tradie where I live means having control of your life, running your own race, having the ability to work hard and reap the profits of that. It also means being able to be flexible with your work hours and time – like when the surf’s up or a new baby is born.

For the past few months the federal and NSW governments, among others, have been talking up vocational training. The Business Council of Australia has been talking up vocational training. Everyone’s been talking up vocational training because we have, according to them, a skills shortage, and industries crying out for skilled workers.

But the way these spruikers of vocational training have been doing it is insulting to anyone with half a brain who’s watched, despairing, as governments of all stripes, over years, have trashed that education sector, or where the sector itself has kicked own goals.

“We have to address the cultural and financial bias that treats VET (vocational education training) like a second class citizen,” said Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott (a high school classmate of mine).

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian weighed in with: “We want universities and VET to be thought of in the same sentence for workers looking to prepare themselves for the high value jobs of the future.”

This week NSW Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education, Dr Geoff Lee, a former TAFE teacher and university lecturer, repeated the “cultural bias” refrain, saying there was a “cultural bias towards university”, as if the problem with falling TAFE enrolments is an attitudinal thing alone, and we, the people, are snobs.

How about we frame it this way.

The public lost confidence in the vocational sector when governments supported the introduction of private colleges for “competition”, when that led to extraordinary rorting of the system and students, and when “diplomas” and “certificates” were thrown around like confetti but didn’t lead to jobs or careers.

How about some honesty about NSW TAFE “reforms” resulting in wholesale closure of regional TAFE colleges, the collapse of courses on offer, the sacking of staff and a dramatic jump in course costs for students, many of whom once saw TAFE as a way to get ahead, often after difficult childhoods where their schooling took a battering?

And what about the $600 million NSW TAFE IT system debacle that left thousands of students – my son included – unable to get final results that were needed before they could start work as licensed tradies.

The “cultural bias” towards university, or against TAFE, didn’t exist in my neck of the woods before vocational training was disrespected and plundered, internally and externally, over a long period. The TAFE college in Gosford, where I grew up, was on the hill as a prominent and respected local institution.

If vocational training is going to offer a great pathway again for young people into well-paying tradie careers – and particularly young people who deserve a break – how about our leaders be honest about who actually showed the bias that caused the mess.


We need to change the cultural bias towards university

We are facing a national skills shortage. Without enough skilled workers, Australia risks losing its footing as one of the world’s most advanced economies with 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth – a record unequalled by any other developed nation.

Every time I meet with industry leaders, they all say a shortage of critical skills will impact industry productivity. A strong Vocational Education Training (VET) sector is key to our economic prosperity.

Geoff Lee is NSW Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education.
Geoff Lee is NSW Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education.

Our education must meet industry requirements and not train for training’s sake. After all, it is industry who are the future employers of today’s students. It also has to appeal to the students so that they want to continue learning beyond school.

This means teaching the knowledge and skills required to get the right job. That means a job that inspires them and harnesses their talents, so that they actually want to turn up for work every day.

For some, this will mean going to university. We have a strong and robust tertiary education sector in NSW which attracts people from around the world.

But for many, an equal and alternate pathway is VET. We have to inspire the 50 per cent of high school graduates who aren’t going to university by promoting VET as a better path towards meaningful careers.

We all know there is a cultural bias towards university but university isn’t always the best option. For some students, we actually hinder their opportunities by not encouraging them into a vocational pathway.

We are wrongly telling them that university is the “better” option.

I like the way Premier Gladys Berejiklian phrased it when she said we want universities and VET to be thought of in the same sentence for workers looking to prepare themselves for high value jobs of the future.

It’s our job to show students, parents and careers advisers the myriad benefits of a VET pathway.

As a past TAFE NSW teacher and former business owner, I have seen firsthand how VET leads to rewarding careers.

So how do we encourage more young people to choose a vocational education?

We show them the benefits. We remove the barriers in our education system. We talk to them about it at school before they’ve started HSC. We encourage mums and dads to talk up TAFE.

We showcase successful young apprentices, many of whom are working on once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure projects that provide the opportunity to learn and earn.

It’s our responsibility to talk up TAFE and promote VET, to encourage students to think about what inspires them and what careers they’d like.

I’m committed to enabling students to find the best pathway for them, whether that be vocational education or university.

Dr Geoff Lee is NSW Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education.


Endless fights over money don’t improve education results

One of the few things both sides agree on in this election campaign is that we must get education right. A highly educated and well-trained workforce is our best insurance that all the benefits that digital disruption brings don’t come at the cost of many people unable to find decent jobs.

As a rich nation, our workers are highly paid. That’s not bad, it’s good. But it does mean we have to ensure our workers continue being equipped with the knowledge and skills that make their labour valuable – to local employers and to the purchasers of the goods and services we export.

One thing it doesn’t mean is that all our youngsters should go to university. There will be plenty of well-paid, safe, interesting jobs for the less academically inclined, provided they’re equipped with the valuable technical and caring skills provided by a healthy vocational education and training sector.

A top-notch technical education system will also be key to achieving something we’ve long just rabbited on about: lifelong learning. Being able to update your skills for your occupation’s latest digital whiz-bangery, or quickly acquire different skills for a job in a new industry with better prospects than the one that just ejected you.

But while we’re emphasising education’s instrumental importance to maintaining our material standard of living, we should never lose sight of its intrinsic value to our spiritual living standard. Education for its own sake. Because it satisfies humans’ insatiable curiosity about the world – even the universe – we live in.

We need to get education and training right at every level, from childcare (these days renamed ECEC – “early childhood education and care”), preschool, primary and secondary school, vocational education and training, and university.

Illustration: Simon Letch
Illustration: Simon LetchCREDIT:

To me, our greater understanding of the way tiny brains develop combines with common sense to say that, in our efforts to get every level of education up to scratch, we should start at the bottom and work up.

The better-equipped kids are when they progress from one stage to the next, the easier it is for that next stage to ensure they thrive rather than fall behind.

On childcare, the Coalition did a good job of rationalising the feds’ two conflicting childcare subsidies, but Labor is promising a lot more money for childcare, including phasing in much better pay for (mainly female) better-educated childcare workers.

The Coalition has achieved universal preschool for four-year-olds and, in the budget, extended that funding for a further two years. Labor has topped that, promising permanent funding arrangements and extension of the scheme to three-year-olds, as most other rich countries do.

We don't spend as much as some comparable counties on education and our results are declining.
We don’t spend as much as some comparable counties on education and our results are declining.

Let’s be frank: because Labor plans to increase, rather than cut, the tax on high income-earners, it has a lot more money to spend on all levels of education (plus a lot of other areas).

It’s certainly promising to spend more on schools. The Coalition’s great achievement has been to introduce its own, better and somewhat cheaper version of businessman David Gonski’s needs-based funding of schools – which it immediately marred by doing a special deal with Catholic schools. Labor’s promising to return to its earlier Gonski funding levels (but, hopefully, not to its earlier commitment that no rich school would lose a dollar).

It’s often claimed we spend a lot on schools relative to other countries, but the Grattan Institute’s schools expert, Dr Peter Goss, says that, when you allow for our younger population, only the Netherlands and the United States spend less than we do among nine other comparable rich countries.

International testing shows our 15-year-olds’ scores for maths, science and reading are each below the average for those countries. On maths, our score of 524 in 2003 had dropped to 494 by 2015.

For science, our gap between the top and bottom students – a measure of fairness – is wider than for the others, bar Canada, South Korea, Japan and even Britain.

Which demolishes the claim that we’re pouring more money into schools but getting worse results. What’s true is that our spending is below average and our results are also below average – and getting worse.

So, do we need to spend a lot more? No, not a lot more now we’ve gone a long way towards redistributing funding favour of needy (mainly public) schools full of kids with low income, low educated parents.

The feds and, more particularly, the states have more to do to re-align funding between advantaged non-government schools and their own disadvantaged public schools.

Once disadvantaged schools are getting their full whack of needs-based funding, however, we can end the eternal shootfight over money and move to the more important issue of ensuring the money’s better spent.

Much can be done to help teachers move to more effective ways of teaching, making schools less like a production line and giving more attention to individuals, many of whom have trouble keeping up, while some are insufficiently challenged.

But, Goss says, this is mainly a job for the state governments, and the feds should avoid trying to backseat drive. The feds would help more by obliging the universities to do a much better job of selecting and preparing future teachers.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.


Federal budget takes wrong approach on skills

Why is the government talking about bricklayers instead of tech jobs?

Listening to and reading last week’s Federal Budget, I was reminded of a quote from former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Speaking at #DisinfoWeek in 2017 Ms Albright noted that:

“Citizens are speaking to their governments using 21st century technologies, governments are listening on 20th century technology and providing 19th century solutions.”

In particular, what brought this to mind was the $525 million skills package presented by the government as part of the budget.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic that the government is talking about skills, and putting real money behind developing Australia’s skills base.

This money is sorely needed to ensure that Australia can continue to be among the world most advanced economies, to enable our workforce to continue to be one of the world’s best.

The problem was that the government seemed to be focussing on the wrong skills.

Treasurer Frydenberg spoke of apprenticeships. He talked about “bakers, bricklayers, carpenters and plumbers”.

Technology skills were barely mentioned.

Most of the allotted budget is going to the VET sector, with the largest allocation, a little over $200 million, going to support new apprenticeships.

The only time technology comes even close to being mentioned is in the allocation of “$62.4 million over four years from 2019-20 to expand second chance learning in Language, Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Skills to upskill at-risk workers,” and a $20.1 million investment in “emerging skills”.

Labor, it should be noted, took a similar approach in its budget reply – the only real difference in policy seemed to be the size of the budget, with Labor promising to deliver $330 million for apprenticeships.

That, I believe, is the critical flaw both the government’s and Labor’s plans.

The jobs of tomorrow are technology jobs.

Not trades and physical labour.

During last year’s government inquiry into the Future of Work, Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes noted that “every company is going to be a software company” and he’s right.

This focus on trades is short-term thinking at best, a way to get untrained young people into jobs now, but offering no long term solutions.

What was needed was a plan to get Australians better qualified for the industries of the next century, and it needed to go hand in hand with a vigorous plan to encourage the uptake of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) subjects in primary and secondary school.

Australia has been falling behind in STEAM, with PISA scores that have been on the decline since 2006, and we need to arrest that decline and get more of our young people trained up in the jobs of the future.

(As an aside, the government did pledge $3.4 million over four years to get more females into STEM, which is a positive move, but $850K per year is hardly going to move the needle.)

So, let’s look at the numbers.

Even in the short term, the government’s approach does not add up.

ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse 2018 report revealed that over the next five years Australia will need 100,000 new technology workers just to keep up with demand. To become a world leader in technology we need twice that.

Even the government’s own five-year projections point to a future workforce in dire need of technology professionals.

According to the Department of Jobs and Small Business, the ICT professions as a whole are projected to experience 16% growth in employment numbers in the next five years.

Technicians and trade workers are projected to grow 5.5% in that same period.

And looking under the breakdown of growth for what the government classifies as “technicians and trade workers”, the two occupations with the highest growth projections are: ICT and telecommunications technicians and ICT support technicians.

And those are just the short term numbers, covering the period from 2018 to 2023.

When you look out to a longer timeframe, the training of more Australians in technology skills becomes even more critical.

A recent report from McKinsey, Australia’s Automation Opportunity, highlights the issue.

Looking out to 2030, McKinsey expects a drop of 11% in the total number hours spent on physical and manual tasks thanks to AI and automation. In the same period the total number of hours spent on technological jobs will increase by 66%. So physical roles are declining even as hours spent on technological tasks as exploding.

That’s why it’s critical that the government shift its focus. We should be upskilling for the jobs of the 21st century, not jobs that are going to be declining as we head into the next century.

We need to focus on STEM, on digital literacy and making sure that young Australians have access to the best technology training that the budget can support.

That’s how we maintain our standard of living, and ensure Australia has a place in the 21st century and beyond.








Many of our children are better off in trade school than in college

After the vote, the board of the Game Commission discussed why they voted the way they did regarding moving the opening day of deer rifle season. John Buffone,

Fact – manufacturing accounts for more than 20% of York County jobs, more than double the state and national averages. Manufacturing jobs pay an average of 12% more than other sectors, and for every dollar spent on manufacturing, we add another $1.89 in supporting sectors. In other words, manufacturing probably accounts for close to 45% of our local economy, and underpins our quality of life.

Fact – our traditional, four-year universities receive taxpayer dollars while 45% of their students will have no degree in six years.

We have a workforce crisis, and not treating it as such will result in deterioration of our manufacturing base and way of life. At present, we are failing to train enough students in the necessary “middle skills.” The majority of our workforce requires something more than a high school degree but less than a college degree. What we have now is too many students with college degrees, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, no job in their field or a job that doesn’t require their four-year degree. Even more concerning are the unfilled jobs that equate to lost opportunities for students and for all of us. When we can’t provide the necessary skilled and semi-skilled labor, our beloved manufacturers look elsewhere, while we cannot attract new investment and new jobs. This hurts our economy and our families, as adult children and grandchildren leave the area for other opportunities.

The solution? We NEED colleges and universities, but we REALLY need to recognize the disservice of perpetuating the “college for everyone” mindset. Honestly, college is a perfect option for some but a terrible investment for others. The average college graduate will now be 55 years old before they catch an average trade school graduate in lifetime earnings. Trade school grads typically earn more than college grads, enter the workforce much sooner, carry far less debt and have a shorter path to possibly owning their own business.

Where once career and technical education (CTE) was viewed as a way to minimize the risk of students dropping out of high school, we are finally realizing and fully embracing CTE as a means of increasing a student’s employment and earning potential. The work being done by Dr. Dave Thomas and his staff at York County School of Technology is phenomenal. County high schools that are now embracing non-college career pathways also deserve credit. They realize what our future looks like.

The goal of every high school student who ponders life after graduation should be to follow a career path he or she can flourish in and enjoy. For everyone, that path may not include college, just as it is true CTE is not for everyone. Somewhere along the line, the reality of finding where the jobs are has to be realized. Millions of jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year and require shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled.

Careers that touch virtually every sector of the economy are available to students who pursue vocational education. Globalization and innovation are redefining the knowledge and skill expectations for 21st century workers. Between 2012 and 2022, there will be more than 50 million job openings for CTE graduates.

With our rich manufacturing tradition, York County is fittingly leading the way in sharpening Pennsylvania’s focus on CTE. In 2015, Rep. Stan Saylor authored House Resolution 102, which established the select subcommittee on Technical Education and Career Readiness to investigate, review and make recommendations concerning career training programs.

The subcommittee’s first and current chairman, Rep. Seth Grove, continued the initiative that led to last month’s overwhelming passage by the House of a package of legislation designed to enhance opportunities in CTE. I am hopeful the Senate will pass them, and Gov. Tom Wolf, who vetoed a similar package of legislation last session, will have a change of heart this time.

These bills need support on the home front. Telling young people the only road to success is the “four-year university track” is a disservice to them, their families and our community.

This is not a commercial for CTE, but rather an endorsement of good planning by students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors. Ask yourself questions like – what truly is the right fit? What is the potential for employment? How much will it cost and how much debt are you willing to take on? Where is the job market headed?

We’re told the tide is turning in both schools and homes, and that is good news. Exploring all options increases the possibility of a good quality of life. From a family perspective, children and grandchildren who choose a path that includes CTE would seem more likely to stay in the area and work for and with their friends and neighbors. From a community perspective, these young people enter the workforce earlier, thus ensuring and strengthening the tax base, which means our community as a whole stands to benefit.