Shortage in skilled tradespeople a long time in the making

Tim Mead is chief executive of Mead Con on the North-West Coast, and he can’t get enough qualified employees to do the work.

SKILLED PEOPLE NEEDED: Mead Con chief executive Tim Mead wants solutions for the skills shortage in his industry. Picture: Brodie Weeding.
SKILLED PEOPLE NEEDED: Mead Con chief executive Tim Mead wants solutions for the skills shortage in his industry. Picture: Brodie Weeding.

“It’s a massive struggle. It’s getting harder and harder to find trained workers. The construction industry is poaching from other industries. We don’t need the good old-fashioned labourer any more, we need people with skills,” he said.

Mr Mead’s issue is echoed all over the country. The latest Skills Shortage Report (August 2017) reveals a national shortfall of trained workers in every aspect of the building industry – from architects and surveyors to plasterers. There are national shortages of workers with automotive, hospitality and telecommunications training.

“I blame the Vocational Education and Training sector,” says Mr Mead. “The VET sector needs to work with industry but they’re going off at a tangent. And unfortunately there’s massive disincentive at high school to go into TAFE. Everyone says ‘why be a plasterer or a carpenter? Why wouldn’t you go to university?’”

Mr Mead is also chairman of the Education and Training Committee of Master Builders Australia. The organisation is so frustrated by the shortage of skilled workers it’s set up its own training schools, which replicate building sites. “We’re doing that in place of VET. VET is built on giving a kid a certificate. We give them a taste of what it’s actually like to be a brick layer, carpenter and a plumber.”

But what Mr Mead is describing is just the tip of a problem that runs far back and has deep structural problems that cannot be rectified by one-off industry training projects.

The February Vacancy Report shows an 11.7 per cent increase in vacancies for machinery operators and drivers compared with the year before and a 16.1 per cent rise in vacancies for trades workers and technicians. There were 11,800 vacancies for ICT professionals alone.

A wage breakout is just around the corner, according to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. ACCI director of employment, education and training Jenny Lambert says they’re already seeing wages that are above the award.

Anywhere there’s a boom you will see wages growth.

Jenny Lambert, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Director of Employment, Education and Training

According to ANZ Research, the biggest wage rises are in the health sector – which has been supercharged by the National Disability and Insurance Scheme.

But sectors with skill shortages will follow. “Anywhere there’s a boom you will see wages growth,” says Ms Lambert. “You want a labour market that is robust to demand and pays reasonable rates. But without putting pressure on employers with wage breakouts.”

Ms Lambert also pins the blame on the VET sector. “Skill shortages have emerged because funding is a mess and training has been a mess,” she said.

This touches on the long and sorry decline of training and apprenticeships, which includes a debacle in state-federal relations, withdrawal of employer incentives, badly managed fee help for students and sharp wage increases for apprentices.

It was Labor that started withdrawing employer incentives for low level TAFE certificate courses in 2011. In 2012 this was extended to higher-level diploma courses and part-time apprenticeships. And in the dying days of the Rudd government of 2013, employer incentives for a wider group of apprentices were wiped out.

And it was 2013 when the Fair Work Commission increased wages for first year apprentices from 42 per cent of the adult wage rate to 55 per cent.

In 2014 Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey removed the tool allowance, which disincentivised apprentices themselves.

About this time VET-FEE Help, which had been created by Labor in 2009 to encourage students into TAFE, began to fall apart. The scheme was wide open to rorting by private education providers and had to be closed down – but not before it had disillusioned a generation of VET students.

Apprenticeships and traineeships have been in free fall since the Fair Work Commission decision of 2013. By September 2017 the number of completions had fallen to the same rate as 2001.

It’s bureaucratic, it’s an inhibitor, it doesn’t allow the provider and the educator to be innovative and responsive.

Dr Ruth Schubert, Senior Fellow at the LH Martin Institute at Melbourne University

Dr Ruth Schubert, Senior Fellow at the LH Martin Institute at Melbourne University points to other weaknesses in the VET sector.

TAFE curricula are underpinned by training packages that are meant to set the industry standard for what is taught. But the process of creating and modifying packages is cumbersome. “It’s bureaucratic, it’s an inhibitor, it doesn’t allow the provider and the educator to be innovative and responsive.”

In one case a competent educator was designing assessment tasks for a 10 hour occupational health subject. To meet the training package requirements the educator had to design 5 assessment tasks. “You can’t do 5 assessments tasks in 10 hours, let alone do the study,” she said.

She also said teachers are undervalued in the VET sector. This shows up in the low thresholds required to teach. You can teach a VET course when holding only a certificate four VET qualification. “You need a bachelor degree to be a teacher at primary school, but only certificate four at TAFE or private provider. The only other requirement is the VET teacher has to have an industry qualification one level higher than the level they are teaching.

“We’ve lost a lot of senior teachers who had in-depth understanding of education.”

But the biggest problem with TAFE relates to state and Federal relations. As with schools, states take responsibility for providing the service and use state and Federal money to do it. Dr Schubert says distrust between political parties at the different levels of government, combined with national / state rivalry means there is no sustainable vision for vocational education in this country and we are rapidly falling behind other systems.

Ms Lambert says the biggest single reason for the collapse in VET is the poor allocation of responsibility.

“There is a lot of push back amongst the Canberra bureaucracy over the extent to which the feds should be funding VET. They say it is constitutionally the states’ responsibility. But the feds have been putting more and more money into these sectors.”

It’s not simply about money.

Karen Andrews, Federal Assistant Minister for Education and Skills

Education minister Senator Simon Birmingham has shown a strong wish for the federal government to have more say over school and university outcomes – given the amount of money Canberra pours into those sectors.

The assistant minister for education and skills, Karen Andrews, is trying to sell the Skilling Australians Fund, a $1.5 billion pot of money for VET, contingent on the states coming up with specific programs and matching the money dollar for dollar. It was outlined in May of last year and is meant to be underpinned by a National Partnership Agreement, pulling state and Federal objectives together.

So far no state has signed up, although the new South Australian government made signing on within 30 days of election part of its platform.

“The past relationship between Canberra and the states and territories is one of funding,” Ms Andrews said, The Skilling Australians Fund has the potential to re-engineer the relationship. It’s not simply about money, it’s about working together to identify projects that will address the decline.”

Mr Mead says there’s another group that need to be persuaded about the value of VET: the parents. Years of building up the university sector through the generous demand-driven system has made a university degree the favoured option for any promising school kid – and their parents. Technical trades are looked down on, he says.

“The construction industry is well paid. You get paid to do an apprenticeship. There are opportunities you can go on to: architecture, project management. But kids need to see that and so do their parents.”

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