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Transcript — Speech to the National Apprentice Employment Network’s National Conference, 16 March 2022, Hobart

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business
Acting Minister for Education and Youth

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to join you for your conference this morning and talk about, I think, one of the most important things the nation is talking about right now and that is skills. I recognise the great work the group training does, particularly in supporting people from disadvantaged organisations, but particularly because you've got the highest completion rates of apprenticeships within our national system, and that's something we need to focus strongly on. 

The National Skills Commissioner tells me we need 86,000 completing apprentices each year in the latest Skilling the Nation report; that we need to start turning the dial away from commencements although important, to completions, which is vital. And to also say well done on taking out two of the National Training Awards in 2021 despite employing only 7 per cent of apprentices, which is extraordinary. This morning, I’d like to do some brief remarks on three things. 

Firstly, early expectations. Where did apprenticeships come from? A little bit of history because if we know where we've come from, we can know where we’re going, and as part of that, ask a foundational question of what next? Secondly, to reflect on exceeding expectations – what we've collectively done during COVID because it is extraordinary. And lastly, great expectations. What should we focus on next?

But firstly, early expectations. We all know our apprenticeship system was imported from Great Britain. The apprenticeship mode of skills transfer or indentured labour of the young working with the old goes back to times that are ancient.

And apprenticeships and the way they are done in Australia is probably the last vestige of medieval training that we still retain that is recognisable in Australia. 

An indenture from New England 1640 reads as follows: 

‘Know that all men I, Thomas Millard, with the consent of Henry Wolcott of Windsor under whose custody and care at whose charge I was brought over out of England into New England, do bind myself as an apprentice for eight years and assigned to serve William Pynchon of Springfield, his heirs and assigns in all manner of lawful employment unto the full extent of eight years beginning the 29th day of September 1640. Eight years apprenticeships in 1640.’

So apprenticeships as we now have with an incarnation of the old, of course, the new through traineeships, they are a role. They came when settlement came. Indeed, they came here 219 years ago.

One of the things we also imported at the time was the master-servant relationship and the British laws covering masters and apprentices. Indeed, amongst the 780 convicts who arrived in 1788 on the First Fleet, there were actually two convict apprentices. There were 63 whose declared occupations were skilled, and 58 appeared to be semi-skilled, and that covered both men and women. 

In preparation for this morning, I walked down to Hunter Island, which of course, is just incredible and saw that marble statue of three weary women, one carrying a baby, reflecting on the 13,000 convict women and children that arrived from 1803 through to 1868 here in Tasmania. Many women who arrived were also in that time apprentices or trades people. Our economy grew and prospered. 

The need or obviously the skill grew with it. Construction, farriers, shearing, butchery, the silk trades, weaving, beer making – thank God for them – and distilling just to name a few. Increasingly, government regulation moved through, and apprentices arrived over the course of eight years, with the first fleet coming after the start of the War of Independence, apprenticeships dropped down to seven years, but then the colony of New South Wales self-governed in 1855, and demand increased. 

Apprenticeships now on the back of the sheep's back dropped to six years as other legislators started putting rules and laws into place. Again, fashioned on the British system that had started with eight years, but now successfully dropping down as demands on the economy required these arrangements through law, then entrenched the regulatory aspects in the state apprenticeship system. For example, it set lower and upper age limits for nominal maximum durations and caps on working ages. The constructs we have now were the constructs in 1855, and they were paved from the roots of the constructs in the 17th century

Our system has evolved, yes, but it maintains some medieval roots. We recall the way we assessed the premises, the length of study, initiatives, pay, appropriate working environments. We then introduced traineeships and school-based apprenticeships. We changed the way we taught apprentices, where they learnt their skills, distribution of on the job and in-class learning. And with each iteration of our modern economy, we have changed many things about the system. But one thing has stayed the same, since people arrived at your shores in 1883 and the national shores in 1788, and that is that skills are foundational and fundamental and central to our society, the economy of New South Wales in 1788, Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 or indeed modern Hobart in 2022.

Australia is a land built by the skilled. It's a nation built from sandstone and timber. Our national prosperity is built in the mines and on our farms. Our gleaming cities of steel and glass are those because of the skilled. The experiences from the vineyards of Margaret River to the great gleaming Gold Coast, which I call home, to the magnificence of your town down under, are staffed and built by the skilled. 

At the dark of night, where lights don’t light or your heater wont heat, when things need to be rebuilt, who do we call? We call the skilled. 

And it all starts with the training, having a crack, and someone giving them a go. We recognise the fundamental importance of keeping that pipeline of trainees having a crack, that chain of those skilled. 

From apprenticeships which we then at six years of course to the madness and the folly of World War One, we dropped apprenticeships from six to five because we lost so many of the best of our country out on the Western Front, and apprenticeships needed to collapse down and of course, we went from five to four after the second half of the First World War leading into the second. And here we are at apprenticeships at four years because they started at eight in 1640, and world events have collapsed them down. Could it be that it is time for us to look at a new approach and a new way? 

For those who enjoy travelling, I encourage you to get through to see BHP’s training academy in Mackay, where all of their apprenticeships are done in two years, fully signed off and ticketed in my state of Queensland, and that is no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination, where apprentices could be done in two years.

The question I have for you all, as training organisations is which are the most innovative? Is there an opportunity for us collectively, with the support of government, to lead the way on the next and perhaps final step of apprenticeships to break away from our current model? Whilst we all understand it's competency based and you can do it quicker, the vast majority don't seem to. Is there an opportunity to embrace what BHP is about and fully step towards a competency model that can collapse and condense as required? If anyone can do it, this room can. And perhaps only this group can actually start that last part of the journey. It’s only being 380 years, but I think it's worthy of our time.

That's early expectations. Can I move onto exceeding expectations? We are now almost- goodness, two years through the pandemic. What is it, 2022? My goodness, how time flies. We all stared somebody into the abyss, and Government's response with industry has been somewhat extraordinary. We were deeply concerned about what a 1-in-100-year pandemic would do for the state of our apprentices. Deeply concerned. Our fear was that apprentices would be the first to go, hence initiatives such as boosting apprenticeship commencements. We didn't quite clearly know what that meant for our society. As the National Security Committee went through it, we studied the lessons learnt from the Spanish flu and other areas to get a feel for how society would respond. We knew without massive intervention by government and industry, that our nation could be decimated.

It is quite extraordinary to stand here now, two years later and look at collectively what we've done. Over 220,000 trained apprentices right now, having commenced during the pandemic. It is extraordinary. It's not an accident, it’s a national endeavour driven by so many. $13 billion going into the skills system during that time. Massive programs like Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements helped as did our other apprentice wage supports. Now we know what has occurred. We know the decisions we've made, and you have to wait to the Budget to find out what comes next. But those apprentices will remain front and centre of the government's agenda for skilling our country. To have so many young Australians, over 220,000 in trade apprenticeships alone, secure an apprenticeship, and with it, their long term job prospects, I think it's one of the great success stories for Australia out of the pandemic. It is very much a skills silver lining, and it shouldn't be underestimated what new employers and the government have done. The number of Australian businesses now serving with an apprenticeship is the highest in terms of trade apprentices that it’s ever been. Over 78,000 individual businesses taking on a boosting apprenticeship commencements apprentice alone. A quarter of all Australian employers that employ currently had an apprenticeship or a trade in.

What we are seeing in skills is significant. There are greater numbers now of Australians getting into trades than at the start of the pandemic. Indeed we remain one of the only industrialised nations on Earth that has more of its citizens employed now than pre-pandemic, which is quite extraordinary. And the other extraordinary story is the women's story, not just in terms of women's participation at 62.1 per cent, the highest ever. Women's unemployment, four per cent, the lowest ever to come to this state with 3.8 per cent, which is extraordinary. The number of women taking up the trade continues to grow, steadily increasing over the past decade from 38.7 per cent through to 25.7, or 31.5 per cent in mid last year. Women like Ada Lacey in Brisbane, we recently missed out on qualifying on the luge, by chance came across bricklaying and tiling video, which motivated her to get back into her pursuits with a career outside of school- outside of sport. After researching her options. Ada accessed funding provided by the Australian government, very successful $2 billion job training mission. And she completed a Certificate One in construction, a three month course that, in her words, she loved. 

Ada then took up an apprenticeship with a Queensland tiling company, where she works five days a week. She’s also started a Certificate 3 in wall and floor tiling.‘I get massive satisfaction standing back and looking at some wall tiling I’ve completed and just knowing – I did that,’ Ada says.  

JobTrainer is another silver-lining of the pandemic. We are incredibly pleased by the take up of this initiative. Introduced in 2020 to target areas with a known skills shortage, more than 325,000 students have since obtained access to free or low-fee courses across Australia through this initiative, ranging from accredited diplomas to certificates and short courses. As part of the 2021-22 Federal Budget, the Treasurer announced an additional $500 million Commonwealth contribution to extend and expand the JobTrainer fund over two years, with matched contributions from state and territory governments. Extending access to the Job Trainer Fund to 31 December 2022 will help more Australians reskill and upskill for in-demand jobs.  All up, 463,000 additional training places will be made available because of this extension. This will help Australia deliver on a $2 billion commitment by federal and state levels of government, to fill vacancies in areas of skilled labour need, especially in the digital world and care sector. Any Australian, regardless of age, employment status, or prior qualifications can gain access to JobTrainer funding for courses that prepare them for the digital world, or to work in aged care, disability care or childcare.

I think we all appreciate the benefits of the job go far further than simply a healthy bank balance. It is built in the aspects of all Australians lives, morale and the positive influences, everything increasing with mental health through offering more security for things like housing, more connected to their communities. There's never been a better time for us to embrace the notion that the best form of welfare is a job, and the best jobs come through skills. 

Like Sarah Vohland, from Brisbane. Sarah was studying art therapy at university when a palliative care nurse gave a lecture on caring for people in their final stages of life. Realising that sort of care was closer to her calling, Sarah swapped art therapy for a Certificate III in Individual Support. ‘The investment in my education is taken care of and I can put my focus into my studies and my family,’ Sarah says. Her skills and confidence have also grown. Says Sarah: ‘Studying at TAFE makes me feel so alive. 

‘We have theory each morning and practical lessons in the labs in the afternoons where the teachers challenge us with different real-world scenarios. ‘The way we’re taught suits me, and TAFE doesn’t take as long as university so I can start working sooner.’ For people like Sarah, VET and TAFE is a better option than going to university. While many are destined to study at university, others are destined for careers that are more hands on, and that lead to specific and practical jobs.     As part of our investment in skills we also want to raise the status of a career in VET as equal to that of going to university. Some outdated stereotypes see VET as a second choice to a university degree but the fact is, a career in VET can offer all the professional and financial rewards as a higher education career. It should be seen as a valuable and fitting career choice for any Australian. Getting more women into trades and skilled up is a key part of our plan to secure Australia’s economic recovery.

Along with Ada Lacey, who I mentioned earlier was enjoying working as a tiler,  Canberran Siobhan Nelson, is part of a new generation of female electricians. Siobhan never saw herself or her female friends pursuing a career in the trades after leaving school. She assumed that sort of thing was for blokes.             But after working in various casual jobs in administration, finance, lifeguarding, sports instruction and the hospitality industry, Siobhan found herself wanting a job with more stability and career progression.  While attending a local jobs fair in Canberra, Siobhan found out about a local training and employment program involving the trades and construction sector. Nine weeks into the 10-week program, Siobhan felt highly motivated to find an electrical apprenticeship. 

Another female role model for women considering entering the electrical trade is Savanne Canobie, who was raised and educated in Nhulunbuy, in the Northern Territory. Savanne completed her Certificate III in Electrotechnology Electrician qualification at Rio Tinto Gove Operations in North East Arnhem Land. She consistently demonstrated an eagerness to refine her skills and seek out opportunities to lead. She is now a mentor to new apprentices, having won the title of 2021 Australian Training Awards Apprentice of the Year.

And of course there is Hannah Holford, who brought her passion and energy to brighten the lives of elderly residents in aged care, whilst she was completing her Certificate 3 in Individual Support. Whilst juggling high school, Hannah won the 2021 Australian School-based Trainee of the Year, with the support of her GTO the Australian Training Company. It’s important to remember the positive impact a successful employer of apprentices and trainees have on their local community. Like the WPC Group and ESSO partnership, who won the 2021 Australian Training Awards for Employer of the Year. Their mentored apprentice program first rolled out in 2018, has a remarkable 100% apprentice and trainee retention rate. It’s now expanded to additional occupations and worksites. When you hear these stories of success and achievement it is clear we avoided the abyss, we secured a generation of Australian workers and many of you in this room deserve recognition for the role you played in that.

The WPC group and ESSO partnership, who won the 2021 Australian Training Award for employer of the year, their mentor and apprenticeship program that first rolled out in 2018 has a remarkable 100 per cent apprentice and trainee retention rate – the problem with that is, you actually can’t get any better than that. And the trick is to maintain at that level. It’s now expanded, of course, for additional occupations and work sites, but an extraordinary achievement. And when you hear stories of this, over the last two years when we commenced staring into the abyss, when you hear stories of securing a generation of workers, it’s not hard to feel exceptionally proud of all of those in the room and what you’ve done. It is remarkable, the role you’ve played in a generation of lives.

After the GFC, 170,000 Australian adults became unemployed or are unemployed to this day – this day. The scarring effects from the GFC because of the lack of capacitive training and entry employment has had a deleterious effect upon those families for the last 14 years. What you have done, and those like you in partnership with the government, has almost ensured that scarring effect will not occur from this one-in-100-year pandemic and this great recession that we have just been through, and that in itself is extraordinary. It was 100,000, the current case load, for unemployed who in the 1992 recession and never got out. The scarring effect is appalling; and effected lives of families and their children. This would be the response to a recession like any other response, we have the absence of the scarring effect because of the focus on the skill. And that is extraordinary.

I’m going to move now to great expectations. Now, to the future – what next? Let’s start where we always like to start, with facts. Facts don’t lie; we have different opinions, it’s hard to have different facts. A million new jobs will be created across the economy in the next five years. We know that. We saw almost a billion created the last five years. Data from the National Skills Commission, which tabled its first State of the National Skills Report last year, indicates that more than 90 per cent of new jobs emerging over the next five years will require post-school qualifications. A sizeable 38 per cent of skills shortages are in occupations with a vocational pathway. They are facts, and they are not in dispute. To help ensure this, the government's investment in apprenticeships will continue to encourage employers to offer apprenticeship pathways and individuals to take up opportunities in the sector Australia needs. You’ll need to wait for the budget to hear more about that. Four industries are projected to generate more than 60 per cent of this total employment growth. The healthcare and social assistance, the accommodation, food services, professional, scientific, technical and education and training. These sorts of insights mean we can plan and develop evidence-based and data-driven sector specific strategies to help Australians find work in what is an evolving labour market, which is being constantly disrupted by technology and automation. A labour market that is ageing through our workforce with changing skills and requirements. 

In the early days of Australia, the demand for skills massively outstripped supply for workers. And here we are, 230 years later, facing the same issue. But unlike that time, we aren't going to prioritise the importation of labour, because today we have an option to skill our existing labour first. Skilling Australians first is something you hear the government talk a lot about. It is one of the key ways we can ensure a secure workforce, irrespective of what local shocks may well come. 

We will continue to invest heavily in the vocational education and training sector, as the budget will attest to, including the TAFE and the RTO system, knowing that high numbers of apprentices in 2022 are in part the result of the continuing strengthening of these institutions. So when it comes to the question of who should continue to secure Australia's economic recovery, the nation is going to face a matter or a number of choices in the following eight weeks – that’s clear. Our government's record is clear. When you go to make that choice, remember that whilst other country's workforces were shed and diminished throughout the pandemic, Australia's apprentices grew – the highest number of trade apprentices since records were kept in 1963. A generation of scarring has been avoided, and more Australians are in work now than any time before the pandemic. That investment we’ve made while staring into the abyss is paying dividends, and the course needs to be kept. 

There is substantial reform in the skills area, not just in how we’re looking at VET, how we’re bringing VET and university together. How we're dispensing with an archaic system of 67 IRCs and the resulting SSOs, and moving to industry clusters where industry will determine the skills we need, and industry will determine the qualifications, and industry will determine the speed at which we update, where we can start to rack and stack qualifications and move away from silos for library of units with confidence, whereby we can build qualifications quickly, where we can attach a credit point value to each of the units of competencies so to make university investment more seamless and recognised qualifications more seamlessly. Where trade occupations can be recognised across state borders. We legislated that last year, although we're still waiting for a number of states to catch up. There is a reform agenda moving forward so we can raise the profile of skills and get more Australians skilled.

So in conclusion, we started with early expectations in the 1600s when apprentices had to do eight years and now we’ve taken them for four. There is an opportunity now for us to collectively lead the way to look at a new, true competency-based approach to apprenticeships, to look at models that’ve gone before us like BHP, to look at how we can make it seamlessly easier for Australians. We looked at exceeding expectations during the pandemic, and what we have collectively is nothing short of extraordinary. To have a whole generation of skilled tradespeople and an events sector thriving while staring into the abyss is extraordinary. And moving forward, we need to have greater expectations. We need to continue to double down on our investment, continue our reform agenda of bringing university and VET closer together, correctly stack our qualifications to have them lead by industry and continue to invest strongly in our skills sector. That is the task ahead of us for the next term; it is a worthy task, and GTOs need to be in the centre of it. We need to find a way to model your completion rates to get that across the sector. I look forward to a continuing dialogue with you as the days turn to weeks, weeks into months, and months into the following years. Bless you for what you do. Enjoy your conference – the weather, I'm sure, will improve.