Apprenticeships help skill up the workforce and can unlock a lifetime of job opportunities for those lucky enough to secure one.
Both major parties are promising to boost apprenticeships, amid claims by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that the Coalition Government is to blame for creating a “crisis in trades training”.
“They have a shocking record on vocational education,” he told reporters recently, before claiming the number of apprenticeships in Australia has fallen.
“It was 420,000 before the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government. Now it’s south of 280,000 and declining.”
Mr Shorten said he wanted to return Australia to being a “tradie nation”.
“What I need to do is remedy the crisis in trades training which the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments have created in Australian apprenticeships,” he said.
So, has the number of apprenticeships slumped since the Coalition took office in 2013?
And if so, can blame be laid at the feet of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison administrations?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Mr Shorten’s claim is misleading.
Apprenticeships have long been associated with traditional trades, such as plumbing.
But traineeships are a newer type of training program and are typically associated with the services sector, retail being one example.
The latest official data shows the number of apprenticeships (broadly classified as trades) has been in decline since mid-2012, but there has been a much more dramatic decline in traineeships (broadly classified as non-trades).
Mr Shorten used the term “apprenticeships” when speaking to reporters, but he was, in fact, referring to combined figures for apprenticeships and traineeships.
September quarter figures show there were 485,440 people in training for apprenticeships and traineeships in 2012 — higher than Mr Shorten’s figure of 420,000.
By September 2018 this had fallen to 267,385, a drop of 45 per cent.
When the numbers are separated, it’s clear the sharp overall decline is driven by the fall in traineeships, which slumped by 66 per cent, compared to apprenticeships, which fell by 18 per cent.
Conflating the numbers may not seem unreasonable since the Government’s own website states that “apprenticeships” are “often referred to as apprenticeships and traineeships”.
However, Fact Check deems Mr Shorten’s claim to be misleading as his comments were made within the context of traditional trades; he referred to there being a “crisis in trades training” and expressed his wish to return Australia to being a “tradie nation”.
Further, policy changes actually introduced by the Gillard government in 2012 aimed at addressing widespread rorting of incentive payments to employers led to the sharp decline in traineeships, which became apparent from 2013, the year the Coalition came to power.
The more moderate drop in apprenticeship numbers was largely in response to labour market changes and the decline in traditional trade industries, such as automotive manufacturing and mining, according to experts consulted by Fact Check.
(ABC News: Meghna Bali)
Getting the definitions right
Apprenticeships are programs mostly associated with traditional trades that train people to become, for example, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, printers, hairdressers and mechanics.
They combine employment and formal training and have been well recognised since the post-war period.
Traineeships also involve employment and formal training, but were established in 1985 to provide opportunities in the non-trade or services sector, typically in retail, hospitality, administration, child care and aged care.
Getting the numbers right
Data produced by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) does not distinguish between apprenticeships and traineeships.
But it does divide data into trade and non-trade sectors, which broadly align with apprenticeships and traineeships respectively.
This data is produced quarterly and consolidated annually.
Apprenticeships and traineeships are measured as commencements, completions and in-training.
When asked for the source of his numbers, Mr Shorten’s office referred to the official September quarter figures for people in training in 2012 and 2018.
The NCVER collated September quarter “in-training” figures for Fact Check from 2009 to 2018 (the latest available).
These show an overall drop of 45 per cent from 2012 to 2018, with the decline mostly driven by a slump in traineeships (down 66 per cent), ahead of a fall in apprenticeships (down 18 per cent).
As the chart below shows, the numbers of people in training for both apprenticeships and traineeships peaked in 2012.
Since then, apprenticeship numbers have remained relatively stable, while traineeships have fallen sharply.
In his comments to reporters, Mr Shorten provided combined numbers for apprenticeships and traineeships yet referred only to “apprenticeships”, creating a misleading picture about a crisis in the traditional trade-based apprenticeship system.
In an article published by The Conversation in 2017, they argued that not only was it misleading to present figures in this way, but that many parties on both sides of the political divide, including industry groups and trade unions, had done so at various times to suggest there was a crisis in Australia’s apprenticeship system.
The academics argued that while apprenticeship numbers had fallen, a closer examination revealed that, in some industries, apprenticeships had experienced recent growth, while for others there had been a decline.
So, are apprenticeships in crisis?
Many people start apprenticeships but do not complete them, so it’s worth taking a look at how the number of completed apprenticeships has tracked over the same period.
As with the overall numbers of people in training, the numbers of those completing an apprenticeship also declined after 2012, driven largely by a drop off in traineeships, rather than in apprenticeships.
Data collated by NCVER for Fact Check shows there were 55,605 people who completed trade-based apprenticeships in 2012.
This number fell by 26 per cent to 41,300 in 2017 (the latest full-year figure available).
Meanwhile, 138,625 people completed traineeships in 2012.
By 2017, the number had fallen by 62 per cent to 52,535.
Did the Coalition create a ‘crisis in trades training’?
It is important to understand why apprenticeships and traineeships spiked in 2012 — a peak that Professor Noonan and Ms Pilcher have labelled a “distortion”.
In the mid-1990s, the Commonwealth began paying incentives to employers on a large scale to help offset the costs of apprenticeships and traineeships, and to encourage more people to take on such programs.
The incentive payments scheme was expanded in 1998 to cover existing workers, not just new workers, and part-time as well as full-time staff.
According to a 2012 paper produced by NCVER, “this had a spectacular impact on traineeship numbers but much less effect on trades apprenticeships”.
Professor Noonan and Ms Pilcher noted in their Conversation article: “These policies made it very appealing for companies to take on a trainee, or to make an existing employee a trainee, as in some cases the incentive acted as an effective wage subsidy.”
“A business model emerged whereby employers would share the incentives with registered training organisations, who then delivered training, too often of questionable duration and quality,” the pair wrote in a more extensive 2017 academic paper (on which their Conversation article was based).
When it became evident that incentive payments were being rorted, the Gillard government scaled back eligibility after 2012, leading to a sharp decline in people taking up traineeships.
It’s a different story for apprenticeships.
Various sources claim that the fall in apprenticeships is principally due to a softening labour market and competition from the higher education sector.
A 2015 parliamentary library report suggested the decline in apprenticeships from mid-2012 may reflect reduced demand for labour in industries that are in long-term decline, such as manufacturing, or industries such as mining and utilities that shed labour in response to market conditions.
The report noted that despite the impact of the global financial crisis, apprenticeships in trade-based industries had remained relatively consistent over the past decade.
Chandra Shah, an affiliate in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Victoria University, told Fact Check that demand for apprenticeships remained strong in industries that continue to grow, such as construction.
However, the uncapping of university places, and lower entry scores for some courses, meant young people were often attracted to university ahead of considering an apprenticeship.
In their paper, Professor Noonan and Ms Pilcher said the decline in apprenticeships had not been due to funding cuts, as they remain fully funded by the states and continue to attract Commonwealth Government employer incentives.
‘Apprenticeships’ as shorthand for apprenticeships and traineeships
Associate Professor Shah told Fact Check that using “apprenticeships” could be problematic.
“There is some confusion and mixture and blurring of lines between traineeships and apprenticeships in some occupations,” he said.
“So, in an election environment, people are going to step into grey areas.”
But Dianne Dayhew, the executive officer of the National Apprentice Employment Network, said Mr Shorten’s use of the shorthand reference was “technically correct” as the term “apprenticeships” was used by the government itself.
However, she conceded it could be unclear to those unfamiliar with the differentiation between traditional apprenticeships and the more recently designed traineeships.
“Apprenticeships is often a term used by government for the collective of apprenticeships and traineeships. It can be confusing,” she said.
What are the major parties promising in this election campaign?
The Liberals have also promised to double incentive payments to employers to $8000 per placement and give new apprentices $2000 each.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also announced funding for an additional rural and regional apprenticeships.
Principal researcher: Sushi Das, chief of staff