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.
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.