Release type: Speech


Address to the Regional Australia Institute Conference


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training

I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands wherever you are joining this event from today and pay my respects to elders past and present.

It goes without saying that jobs and skills are vital for regional Australia.

As you know, it was one of the 5 pillars your Institute identified in last year’s Rebalance the Nation report.

Over the years there have been many strategies to achieve access and equity in education and training for rural and regional Australia.

Despite efforts based on expertise, goodwill and a spirit of cooperation, past promises have often not lived up to the rhetoric.

We came to office with a commitment to understand and overcome the challenges of delivering high-quality Vocational Education and Training outside metropolitan Australia.

I want to be real about the scale of those challenges.

Australia likes to position itself as the land of a fair go, where every individual should have the opportunity and right to access quality VET and develop skills that can support them in their work and life.

It’s a good sentiment.

But many people feel left behind with the rise of insecure work and a rapidly changing economy.

TAFE institutes have been closed, with funding ripped out by previous governments.

And then came the pandemic, which saw people moving in large numbers away from cities, only increasing the need for VET in the bush.

And not only are the regions experiencing a population boom – they’re also set to play a very significant role in Australia’s transformation towards a clean energy future.  

The transition has been identified as one of the most significant challenges facing the Australian labour market, but also presents a myriad of opportunities.  

An army of skilled workers is going to be required to build and install the infrastructure needed to achieve a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

To face these challenges, the Australian Government has seized the moment to reshape the VET sector.

The new National Skills Agreement is an example of a truly transformative policy, on the back of goodwill and collaboration.  

Under the Agreement, the Commonwealth will invest up to $12.6 billion to expand and transform access to the VET sector, support quality training and implement reforms to address critical skills needs.

If States and Territories access all the Commonwealth funding available under the Agreement, the combined investment by governments will exceed $30 billion.

Regional Australians will benefit from the commitments made by all governments.

A key principle of the Agreement is to ensure that all Australians — particularly regional, rural and remote learners — have access to the education, training and support needed to obtain well-paid, secure jobs.

It will also ensure access for all Australians - especially groups who have historically been excluded - to the education, training and support they need to prosper in a modern economy.

The Agreement is the first to embed a model for shared national stewardship to provide national, State and Territory leadership on skills delivery of shared national priorities.

This includes gender equality, Closing the Gap and supporting the Net Zero transformation, while providing states and territories with the flexibility to respond to local skills requirements.

The NSA will establish nationally networked TAFE Centres of Excellence to increase collaboration between industry, universities and TAFEs.

Working together to develop world-leading curriculums.

The Centres will focus on national priorities including the transformation to a net zero economy, sustaining essential care and support services, ensuring our digital and technological capability, and sovereign capability.

The Government’s recently released Employment White Paper highlighted the need to grow the high-skilled workforce, and to support students of all ages to move more easily between vocational education and university.

For too long we have separated the head from the hands. Treated practical knowhow and conceptual knowledge distinctly, as if combining the two are not mutually beneficial. 

That is not a working model.

We need both tertiary sectors to work with each other – and work with industry and governments to make sure we have the skills our economy needs.

These investments come on top of $414 million which has already been committed for the delivery of a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE places from next year.

It follows the 214,000 Fee-Free TAFE places we provided in partnership with states and territories in the first six months of this year, far exceeding expectations.

And Fee-Free TAFE is meeting the needs of regional students and employers.

Over 77,000 people from regional Australia have enrolled, making up over a third of total enrolments.

About 8,700 students enrolled in the hospitality and tourism sector, which is a sector of key regional need.

A further 9,500 students have enrolled in agriculture courses.

And under the TAFE Technology Fund, we are supporting upgrades of essential TAFE infrastructure and facilities at projects located in regional Australia in Gunnedah, Wollongong, Townsville, Thursday Island, Sorell and Devonport.

I want to paint a picture of the opportunities we see for clean energy workers.

Research by Jobs and Skills Australia has identified 38 critical green energy occupations are needed right across Australia, including in regional and remote areas.

Growth in these occupations is also likely to be concentrated in regional Australia, presenting a great opportunity, as clean energy will continue to provide well paid employment that might otherwise be lost as global demand for fossil fuels decreases.

Without a much more concerted effort to improve general educational outcomes in regional areas, Australians in regional communities will find themselves locked out of these new jobs.

They will need to be filled by domestic or international migration or left unfilled, leading to ongoing skill shortages.

This is a particular issue for First Nations people and the outer regional areas such as Central West NSW, where there is limited industry and skilled workers to draw on.

The Albanese Government understands the training challenges faced by people in regional Australia.

TAFE campuses are often the only training option in many regional communities and after 10 years of drift and neglect we are putting TAFE back at the heart of our training system – providing the same opportunities for people in the regions that are available to those in the cities.

We also know there are unique challenges faced by apprentices in regional, rural and remote areas and that these challenges are more acute for remote apprentices.

That is why we are providing guaranteed mentoring places for rural apprentices.

I am confident we are making good progress towards the Government’s commitment to ensure no one is left behind and no one held back. 

Through the National Skills Agreement we will deliver a skilled workforce with TAFE at the heart of the VET sector.

It will support access for all, especially priority groups in rural and regional areas, to the education, training and assistance they need to obtain the skills to participate and prosper in the modern economy.