Government Must Push Apprenticeships, not Cheap Labour

Within 24 hours of the Turnbull Government’s unveiling of the PaTH program designed to address youth unemployment, both the Prime Minister and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash were unable to answer mounting questions relating to the initiative, which Cash described as ‘exciting.’

In the world I live in, no one is excited about being paid below the poverty line at $4 an hour. No one is excited about a scheme in which you receive no recognised training in a short-term job, only to be replaced by someone in exactly the same predicament as you.

In Australia, we have existing programs which provide structured training with internationally recognised qualifications and the acquisition of important and valuable skills. They lead to lifelong career paths made up of skilled, well-paid jobs with high levels of job satisfaction. These programs are called apprenticeships.

Young people have significant interest in apprenticeships. Talk back radio is full of mothers and fathers talking about the difficulty of getting their children into apprenticeships and asking why this is happening when there is an urgent need for an increase in skilled workers.

They have a very good point.

Australia needs skilled workers. In the construction industry, we must increase the workforce by 30 per cent, or 300,000, over the next 10 years so that our homes, schools, hospitals and much-needed infrastructure are built. At the same time, the number of Australians beginning an apprenticeship has plummeted since March 2015 by 20 per cent.

This is not surprising when you consider that over the last two years, the Government has cut funding to skills and training totalling $2.5 billion. One billion dollars has been cut to apprenticeships.

In Tuesday’s budget, another $247 million was axed from skills and training, with no new initiatives to address the skills shortage.

The Liberals’ previous $1 billion cuts to apprentice programs have hit hard. In September 2013 there were 417,700 apprentices in training across Australia. Due to the Government’s savage cuts, there are now only 295,300 apprentices.

That’s 122,400 fewer apprentices in training across the country, while the Government turns its back on cries from industry, workers, unions and the community.

The government can turn this around. Government-mandated quotas would boost apprenticeship numbers and help young people into long-term, successful careers in the construction industry while addressing the shortfall of skilled workers. It also assures the community of quality work in the building of our cities and towns.

It makes sense whichever way you look at it.

Both in Australia and internationally there is evidence of the need for government action in this area. In the UK, the government sought to redress the decline by prioritising resources into apprenticeships and the launch of a national scheme. This saw an increase from 167,700 apprenticeships in 2002-2003 to 457,000 by 2010-2011.

Yet the Turnbull Government is going backwards.

In addition to the cuts in funding,they are further hindering opportunities for young people by banning apprenticeship quotas through the ABCC legislation. Unlike what the government would have you believe, the laws are not about dealing with corruption and criminality. The legislation includes provisions that actually restrict unions from negotiating with employers for a certain number of apprentices in relation to the number of tradespeople involved.

Implementing laws that impede more apprenticeships is nothing short of neglect when, according to the latest Construction Outlook survey conducted by the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Contractors Association, activity in construction in the next financial year will soar with apartments, roads and rail projects driving the infrastructure boom.

A major focus of the CFMEU’s work has been in apprenticeships, in advocating for the provision of quality training and the maintenance of professional standards in the industry. We campaign for more apprenticeships because we care about creating the future generation of construction workers.

There are large numbers of young people who would embrace learning a trade that provides them with a future in a growing industry. This includes people who are underrepresented currently: indigenous workers, women and newly arrived migrants.

Rather than pouring resources into a campaign for laws that curb the human rights of construction workers, the Prime Minister may want to turn his attention to the real problems and boost the number of skilled workers to address the alarming shortfall in the industry.

There is no evidence that an ill-conceived, futile scheme that exploits young people improves their long-term prospects.

Mandating for apprenticeship quotas and increasing funding for apprenticeships, on the other hand, will deliver what everybody wants: good jobs, lower unemployment and workers with skills that are in demand.

Now that’s something to get excited about.

Dave Noonan