DI FARMER, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR TRAINING AND SKILLS DEVELOPMENT: It is fantastic to be here at Eagle Farm TAFE with Federal Skills and Training Minister Brendan O’Connor to show off what we do in Queensland. And we’ve got our fantastic apprentices here – Liam, Zara, and Jasmine – doing a clean energy apprenticeship. And that’s one of the things we want to talk about today.
I am so grateful for our partnership with the Federal Government to offer 37,000 Fee-Free TAFE places in Queensland. We signed the agreement at the very end of last year, and we have already seen complete take-up of the 37,000 places in Queensland. Top of the list is electro-technology; we have 3,300 Queensland students who have taken that up. And then in the top five we’ve got early childhood, accounting, bookkeeping, business management. Fee-Free TAFE is to train people in the jobs that are of the greatest priority in Queensland.
And one of the really important parts of Fee-Free TAFE is that the Federal Government is offering clean energy apprenticeships. These are the jobs of the future. And we know in Queensland we’ve announced our $63 billion Queensland energy and jobs plan. We are going to need the workers to fulfil that plan right throughout Queensland. And so these apprentices who are starting right now thanks to the Federal Government and thanks to our Fee-Free TAFE, they are going to be the workers of the future.
Everywhere you go in Queensland – doesn’t matter what sector or what region – employers are saying they need more workers. The importance of skills and training cannot be overstated. If you get the right training then you are more likely to get the right job. And under our Fee-Free TAFE people are getting training for jobs who otherwise may have missed out, have never been able to get the opportunity for that job.
And, of course, in Queensland we’re not only offering that Fee-Free TAFE, but we are investing over $100 million in new facilities. So on this very campus we are starting to build a $30 million lab that will be training apprentices for the future in renewables, in robotics, in electrotechnology. We’re investing in the workforce of the future, and it’s so exciting to think about what these young people here today, what they’re going to be doing in the future. So thanks to the Federal Government. It’s great to be working with a Federal Government that values skills and training just as much as we do in Queensland.
I’ll hand over to Brendan.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Thanks very much. Thank you very much, Di. It’s great to be here at Eagle Farm TAFE looking at the great work that’s been undertaken by this vital VET provider that’s ensuring that we have the skills needed today and tomorrow. And it’s also good to be with Zara, Jasmine, and Liam, some of the apprentices here that are obviously acquiring skills in demand.
After the election, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, convened the Jobs and Skills Summit, which brought together State and Territory Governments with the Federal Government, employers and unions, the university sector and the VET sector, and others to discuss our challenges. And one of the significant challenges we confronted upon election was dealing with the skill shortages in our economy, both deep and wide.
And several metrics underline how challenging it is to confront and deal with.
Firstly, and on the occupations list, we saw within 12 months, the occupations on the shortage list went from 153 to 286 – almost doubling in a very short period.
We also were informed that the OECD had said that Australia had the second highest labour shortage per capita amongst OECD countries. And that really spoke to the challenges that we had, and it was out of that Jobs and Skills Summit that we announced 180,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places for the country for 2023, an additional amount of places in the VET sector in areas of emerging demand.
I want to tell Queenslanders who are listening how remarkable this state has been in ensuring the enrolments of the allocation determined between the Queensland Government and the Federal Government for this year in the Fee-Free VET and TAFE place were filled. And that was 37,000, as Minister Farmer has just said.
This is the first jurisdiction, the first State or Territory, that has reached the optimum allocation. And that really says that this initiative has been a success because we are removing cost barriers for people to access skills in areas of existing and emerging demand in the labour market.
So that’s good for those students and those trainees and apprentices, and it’s good for employers who are crying out for the skills that are in demand right now, and it’s crucial for this state and for our country.
Because with the scale of the skill shortages, not just in the energy sector but across the economy, whether it’s retail or tourism, whether it’s the mining sector, whether it’s the traditional trades or professions, whether it’s the care economy which has an exponential demand on labour and skills, we are strategically investing in a way that will supply those skills to those employers, to those sectors of our economy to ensure that we can supply the need that is there. So, it’s a win-win-win – a win for apprentices, employers, and the economy.
But what it also says is that we need to do more.
We're negotiating a National Skills Agreement. We’re in the middle of negotiating with the Commonwealth and the State and Territory Governments a five-year National Skills Agreement for the VET sector, providing certainty, which would commence in January 2024.
And it is really being informed by decisions we’ve already made where they have worked.
This is an evidence-based approach to effectively deploying taxpayers’ money in a way that will provide the dividend that we need as a nation.
And so engaging with the Queensland Government has already borne fruit in the fact that there’s been a 37,000 take-up, an optimum take-up, of the Fee-Free TAFE places to date this year.
And so we’re looking at further negotiations around Fee-Free TAFE and VET places, removing those financial barriers to training.
This is really important at a time when people are struggling with cost-of-living pressures. This relieves the stresses on people when things are difficult, but at the same time, encourages people to acquire skills that are in demand.
Now I want to turn to the 10,000 new energy apprenticeship places the Federal Government has looked to over the next few years. We have had a good take-up rate, but we’d like to see more people enrol in new energy. We know with the transformation of the energy sector, we’re going to power Australia; we’re going to make sure we realise the goals that we’ve set ourselves federally and amongst state and territory governments.
We need to continue to increase the pipeline of skills to this sector. That’s retraining or upskilling existing workers in the sector. That’s having new entrants into the energy sector.
This sector is so critical. It is indeed – it supports each other sector of our economy. It’s also an area where we need to ensure that we see a reduction in emissions - net zero by 2050. That can only happen if we have the skills that are in demand today and tomorrow. That’s universities and the VET sector working together.
I’m also happy to note that one of the ways we’re going to do that is to ensure greater collaboration between the two tertiary sectors. And when I speak with Di or other ministers, we discuss how to ensure greater collaboration to see the best possible options available for people who are learning conceptual and technical knowledge.
So, understanding how things work and having the technical capacity to carry them out. And if you look around the world where things work optimally, you see the capacity for people to acquire technical skills going into university. You see people at university learning technical skills. So, it's that collaboration, that greater level of cooperation in the tertiary sectors – VET and universities – is absolutely critical for the future of our economy. And you’ll hear more of that as we continue to negotiate, and finally, we’ll announce, I’m confident, an agreement that will commence in January 2024.
But while we’ve seen a good take-up rate in Queensland on the new energy apprenticeships. We’d like to see more. One of the reasons why Minister Farmer and I are here today is not only to meet with the apprentices and the teachers and all those that are involved in this great venture, but it’s also to really say to people if you want a great job that has good skills and skills that will be in demand, where there’s career progression and good wages. You can. You really couldn’t find a better place to enrol than in new energy apprenticeships because they are the future jobs, and there’ll be a great prospect for people to enrol in such courses.
I might stop there and take any questions, or Minister Farmer may take any questions if you have any.
JOURNALIST: Will someone qualify – will they leave TAFE with a qualification for no cost?
O’CONNOR: There are associated costs with people undergoing training. But this is in terms of the reduction in the Fee-Free course place, that’s removing the fees upon students. So firstly, they can decide to enrol. Too often, people are unable to enrol in courses because they can’t afford to do so. They’re already making big decisions about perhaps not working in higher-paid jobs for the short-term, trying to acquire skills so they can have a great career. That’s very difficult for people, often.
And what we found is by removing the cost barriers, people can enrol in these courses, the Fee-Free TAFE and VET places, without fee costs.
That’s not to say there aren’t some other costs that may have incidental costs, but it does remove up to $10,000 in some cases. It can be between $2000 and $10,000 a course for 12 months, and for longer courses, even more. And that has encouraged people to enrol. And not only that, the Fee-Free allocation is in areas of demand, so they’re enrolling in areas of courses also that are – where you’re acquiring skills that employers and industry need.
So that’s why I say it’s a win-win that we’re encouraging people to acquire skills. That’s good for them, for employers that are crying out for skills in their companies, that’s good for business and ultimately if Australia is going to maintain or even improve its standing and have the quality of life we’ve grown to accept in a very competitive world, we have to have a knowledgeable and skillful labour market workforce. And to do that we have to have our school system and tertiary sectors working optimally to ensure we do that. And if we do that then, as I say, it benefits the entire nation.
JOURNALIST: The NCVER came out with some statistics this morning saying that enrolments in TAFE fell 4 percent nationally last year, which is concerning. Do you think that the free TAFE will, you know, fix or increase enrolments? And will Fee-Free TAFE be a permanent measure in the new agreement over the next five years? Is it just a one-off or are you going to make it permanent?
O’CONNOR: The fall in enrolments makes sense because there’s not been as much investment as the previous year. As you know, results, there’s a lag time between results and investment. And what we made clear in September last year – it’s only that long ago when we announced the 180,000 Fee-Free places that commenced for this year – is that we needed to remove cross barriers, particularly in areas of emerging demand. And that’s what we’ve done. And that’s, I think, a testament to the success of that policy – what Minister Farmer said just a moment ago, that of the 37,000 allocated for Queensland, those enrolments have been filled.
JOURNALIST: But will there be more if there’s demand?
O’CONNOR: Well, we’re now negotiating. There’s a National Skills Agreement. And running alongside that is a further discussion going on by the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments to have additional Fee-Free TAFE and VET places. So – and it would commence from January 2024 if we agree on that.
JOURNALIST: For five years or for one year?
O’CONNOR: Well, we’re looking to make – we haven’t resolved all of that. But, firstly, speak of the success this year. Secondly, we are looking to negotiate an additional amount of places. We currently have a $400 million allocation of costs to go to that. And, yeah, we’re looking it, negotiating it. Whether it goes for the entire five years is not resolved yet. But we’re negotiating it, and I just say this: the success is such that it informs our thinking and those negotiations. And all I can say at this point is we are negotiating in good faith. But what I do really appreciate is the extent to which ministers in state and territory governments have a similar view to the Commonwealth – that if you remove cost barriers to education and training, particularly in areas of demand, that will be, therefore, opportunities in the labour market, then you get success. And so I’m very confident that we will agree on further Fee-Free TAFE and VET places from next year.
JOURNALIST: So does the Federal Government, and Minister Farmer, do you want to see it for five years?
O’CONNOR: I’m just saying I’m in the middle of a negotiation—
JOURNALIST: But what do you want, you know?
O’CONNOR: Well, what I want is an agreement between state and territory governments. And we’ve got a five-year agreement for national skills. That will be a five-year agreement. That may well be the case for any additional Fee-Free TAFE places, but we need to negotiate that, and we’re doing so. Again, I can only repeat that there has been such success in the enrolments that I think it’s very likely that we will see an outcome that’s beneficial to each state and territory and the nation as a whole.
JOURNALIST: Will we see a similar Fee-Free scheme apply to universities for in-demand courses – you know, nursing, teaching, things like that?
O’CONNOR: Look, what I said earlier, that would really be a question directed to Jason Clare, my friend and colleague who obviously works in that space. But I’ll just say this: Jason is speaking shortly at the National Press Club. He’s talking about the review that’s underway in higher education. And some of the matters that have come out of that review to date, even though it’s still subject to public conversation and discussion and debate, coincide with what we’re negotiating in the National Skills Agreement.
And that’s news to my ears – good news to my ears because it means that we’re working in tandem in the two sectors to find that collaboration that I referred to earlier. And I know there’ll be some ideas that are coming out of that review. We’ll be considering what they can do in some areas and professions where there’s a massive demand to encourage people to complete those degrees. And it may well go to issues around how you support people to finish, and so on.
So, we’ve been delineating two tertiary sectors for too long without enough collaboration. And when you look around internationally, you see a lot more permeability between the two sectors where students go from one to the other. In some countries, significant proportions of what would be TAFE students here will often consider whether they want to take up a university subject or even a degree once they've done their course. And I think we have to encourage that thinking because there’s an expectation of knowledge and technical skills increasing if you’re going to compete. In a knowledge-based globalised economy, you have to compete.
So to your question, I can’t precisely answer that question; it’s for Jason Clare to answer. But I know he’s exploring innovative ways in areas as you’ve just mentioned seeing how you encourage people to enrol and how do you get them to finish their courses, particularly if we’re desperately in demand for those skills. And he is speaking at the National Press Club very shortly, and I’m sure he’ll start outlining his vision in that regard.
O’CONNOR: Yes, of course, you can.
JOURNALIST: We know the housing crisis here has been partly affected by a skills shortage and a lack of tradespeople. Is this program somewhat addressing that, and will we see some of those essential building apprenticeships also getting jobs and boosting the number of workers there?
FARMER: Look, absolutely. Part of encouraging people into the workforce is to make sure they’ve got the training to get the right skills. And certainly, a number of construction-related courses come under the Fee-Free TAFE. In fact, I think we’ve seen it’s something like a 134 per cent increase in construction-related traineeships and apprenticeships just in the last year alone. But we have to be working on a range of things. Last week, I convened a construction roundtable with industry leaders to look at what else do we need to do around skills and training with construction to make sure we’ve got that pipeline of workers.
Some of that is about working with some already great programs in schools – 87 schools across Queensland have a special program to create a pathway for young people to choose construction. We’re looking at making sure that people are completing their degrees. It’s a national problem, completion of qualifications. Construction, something like 67 per cent of students complete their apprenticeships in construction, which is actually quite high compared to other industries. But we need to make sure that other 30-odd per cent are also completing. There was a range of other really good ideas that we’ll be working on because it’s certainly a priority sector.
JOURNALIST: Will you be looking at more support, financial support, apart from the Fee-Free TAFE but for apprentices? Because it must be very difficult for them with the cost of living, paying their rent, buying their food and they’re paid such a paltry wage, a training wage. That’s one of the reasons so many are dropping out, is they can earn more labouring or earn more in a shop or a bar. So, what can the federal and state governments do in this next five-year agreement to ensure that apprentices have financial support so they can afford to finish their studies?
FARMER: Look, cost of living is absolutely a critical issue, which is why you could not overstate the importance of Fee-Free TAFE just for starters. It is the difference between many people choosing training and not, and having chosen training, having a career path in the future. And, in fact, the clean energy apprenticeships that Minister O’Connor was talking about are a great example of actually really addressing policy to actually get a particular outcome.
So, we know that the clean energy taskforce in the future is going to be massive. And, of course, it is partly construction-related courses that these people are doing to. But for these apprentices, they get Fee-Free TAFE and then on top of that if you are working with a clean energy employer then you get a subsidy, up to $10,000 subsidy, to assist you in the cost of living. So that’s exactly the sort of really innovative policy which means more people may be choosing that.
Now, as Minister O’Connor said, we’re still negotiating what it looks like. But I guess not just out of the skills and training portfolio you would have seen in this year’s budget in Queensland it was a cost-of-living budget with range of concessions and subsidies, including significant energy rebates but across a range of other areas to support people with cost of living needs. And so it needs that kind of broad response.
But absolutely Fee-Free TAFE. And we’ve had this going for a number of years in Queensland – going on our own. We didn’t have a federal government that supported skills and training before the Albanese Government. And so we’ve got a commitment to making training available to every Queenslander no matter who you are or where you are.
JOURNALIST: It sounds like all these deliberations are a matter of funding. Dan Andrews announced today that they’re no longer going to stage the Commonwealth Games because he said it’s a waste of money and he doesn’t want to take money out of hospitals, schools et cetera. Do you think the Olympic Games are a waste of money? Do you think that money would be better put in to the training system, for example, or the hospital system in Queensland?
FARMER: I think – I don’t think there’s any doubt about Queensland’s commitment to staging the Olympic Games. And we’ll know the return to the Queensland economy will be significant. So, we have an absolute commitment to that. We have also got a strong track record in Queensland of commitment to a skills and training budget - $1.4 billion. And so there’s no doubt whatsoever that this government sees this as a priority for the current and future workforce.
JOURNALIST: So, should Queensland take on the Commonwealth Games? Can you stage them again?
FARMER: I’m not going there. I’m not going there about the Commonwealth Games. But we are very much looking forward to the Olympic Games, and there’s excitement right across Queensland.
JOURNALIST: Mr O’Connor – sorry, Minister O’Connor, should some state – should Australia host the Commonwealth Games somewhere?
O’CONNOR: Look, I only saw the decision, like most people, today. It’s a decision that the Victorian Government has made, and that’s for it, I suppose. It’s disappointing for the athletes and coaches, and others involved. Of course, it would be. But that’s a decision of the Victorian Government. Whether other states could take that up is entirely up to them. I mean, there are, as you say, competing cost pressures. And, of course, if a state chooses to do that, that’s up to them. But, yeah, disappointment today for people. But I’m sure the Victorian Government believes it’s the right decision for the state.
JOURNALIST: Minister Farmer, can I ask you about another issue – what’s your message to Queenslanders as the youth crime crisis carries on? We saw four teenagers attack a pizza delivery driver over the weekend. It was a pretty awful act of violence. Your government has declared you are fixing the problem. You know, what’s your message to Queenslanders who are still grappling with this issue?
FARMER: Look, can I just say that was a horrific crime which, I think, you know, was very confronting for everybody let alone the victim. And can I just say we have an absolute commitment to addressing youth crime. It is not a simple fix, and community safety has to be the absolute key.
So, we introduced at the beginning of this year some of the harshest youth crime laws in the country. And it’s early days to see the long-term impacts of that legislation, but we are already seeing a number of people charged under the new offences that were introduced with that legislation. We actually have more young people in detention in Queensland than any other state or territory in the country aside from the Northern Territory. We’ve announced that we are building two new detention centres, but they are therapeutic detention centres because although we must keep the community safe by having really strong laws and by making sure that we are detaining people who are the serious offenders, we also don’t want to see them back in the system again. So we have those therapeutic centres because we want to actually change that trajectory and not see those young people back.
By the same token, we know that we’ve seen a 31 per cent decrease in youth crime over the last five years. But what we have seen is that it’s a small group of serious repeat offenders who are committing about half of the crime. And so our strategies, aside from the laws, the new laws that are in place, about having new detention centres is that we really need to target those serious repeat offenders.
We’ve had a number of programs in place, some of which I introduced the last time I was Youth Justice Minister, and we are starting to see the results of those. We are starting to see significant drops in re-offending. And that’s what I believe the community needs to see.
They need to feel confident that these things are working. I have asked my director-general to evaluate every single one of the programs we have in place, and I have stated categorically that if any of those programs are not working then we will stop doing them.
JOURNALIST: When do you get that report back?
FARMER: That will be a rolling – that will be a – so some of them we already have evaluations for; some of them haven’t been in place for long enough. But we want to make sure that we’re investing where we can actually get the impacts for the community.
Having said that, if you’re a victim of crime you can hear those statistics but if it’s happened to you or your family, I mean, unfortunately, we’ve seen fatalities and that is just – I can’t even imagine what that must be like. But for people who’ve had their home invaded, who’ve had someone inside their house, the impact on victims is significant.
So I appreciate that. My talking about these trends over a number of years, if you’re that person who’s suffered, it’s really hard. And that’s actually why the Premier commissioned the select committee of inquiry, the parliamentary committee, into the impact on victims. She announced we’ve appointed a victims commissioner.
The committee, victims committee, delivered its report I think about six weeks ago, and so the Attorney-General is preparing a response to that.
Since I’ve been re-appointed as Youth Justice Minister I have made it my mission to travel across Queensland, talk to stakeholders but talk to victims as well, because it’s really important to hear their voice.
JOURNALIST: Yesterday the media was blocked from attending a court case of those four teenagers who attacked that pizza delivery driver. Should your laws be allowing public scrutiny and access to the legal process for these young people as part of the community feeling safe, knowing what’s going on, and also part of the punishment strategy for these young people?
FARMER: I can’t answer that; that decision was made –
JOURNALIST: But your –
FARMER: Yesterday I understand – and you might correct me if I’m wrong – I understand that in many instances that is available, that information is available.
But I don’t know the particular circumstances for that decision yesterday. But certainly, it’s important that Queenslanders and in particular victims actually know what is happening, they know what the consequences of crime are, whether it’s for themselves or for the community in general.
One of the programs that we have in place which is actually incredibly successful is restorative justice conferencing where the victims are given an opportunity to actually confront the offenders.
Many victims say to me that that is – that completely turns their lives around to have that opportunity. And we have seen a strong drop in re-offending from young people who’ve taken part in that process.
JOURNALIST: So would you need to change the act to allow media better access to these court cases?
FARMER: Look, I would have to, you know, look at what was being proposed. And, you know, I think in some instances we’re not actually able to release the names of young offenders, depending on, you know, where they come from. So certainly what the Premier has made clear and what I’ve made clear is that we are open – there is no jurisdiction in the world who has completely sorted youth crime, how to deal with youth crime, whether it’s the matter you’re raising in terms of public scrutiny, whether it’s making it go away. And so we are always open to ideas and suggestions. Everywhere I go people have got suggestions for me across Queensland. And we consider every single one of those.
JOURNALIST: Ministers, we effectively are speaking of children here. So I’m just wondering if youth crime is a symptom of a schooling system that is no longer fit for purpose for a large proportion of children. And I know Minister O’Connor was talking about wanting more collaboration between tertiary education. Do we need more collaboration between schools and VET so that some kids who just do not want to go to school, they might actually be really interested in doing an apprenticeship through school when they’re younger? I know that Queensland does this a bit, but is this something that the federal government as well needs to look at nationally so these kids belong somewhere?
FARMER: That is a very, very good question. And, in fact, Minister O’Connor and I were just talking about the school sector and the VET sector before, and I’ll let him answer from a federal government point of view. But absolutely I work – probably the minister I work closest with in Queensland is the education minister for that very reason. And if you look at decisions, like our recent decision to make kindy free for four-year-olds, that will be a game changer because literally if your child has not gone to kindy, you are starting school – and teachers tell us this – you are starting school way behind.
And if young people never catch up, we know the greatest risk of becoming a youth offender is if you are disengaged from school by the age of especially seven. So an initiative to actually makes sure that every child is starting school with the same level of readiness as everyone else will be a game changer.
The work that the education minister has done to actually reduce the number of times prep children get suspended, these things are huge, and we work very closely together. There are a range of fantastic programs which are for these young people who are disengaged so that we’re actually putting them on the right path. But I’ll let Minister O’Connor answer.
O’CONNOR: Yes, there’s been excellent examples of pre-vocational training. The engagement of secondary schools in the VET sector has been very successful. It works well here, and I have been talking with the Queensland government about more of that. And also, I think other states are considering doing more in that area.
I wouldn’t conflate the sort of two issues you’ve raised in the same sentence, but of course, if someone has a good prospect in life, their chances of, for example, committing offences or acting anti-socially are less likely. And that’s why anything we can do to support families and schools to ensure that young people have got productive, positive lives, we should do so.
And it’s not all on the schools, either – I mean, you know, sometimes teachers are expected to do so much. It’s all of us really – communities, families, schools doing better by younger Australians. And to that extent, yeah, get the school system right. As Minister Farmer said, preschool education will help over the longer term because there’ll be more participant – they’ll be participating in the education system earlier which is more likely to be good for their prospects educationally.
And so, yeah, it’s really a multi-pronged response that’s required to attend to these very complex issues. But certainly the better chance for education, better prospects of employment, the less likelihood of offence by anyone.
Okay, are there any other questions? No. You’re finished now? Okay, thanks very much.