Release type: Transcript


Interview - 2GB with Chris O'Keefe


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

CHRIS O'KEEFE, HOST: Brendan O'Connor, he's the Skills Minister in the Albanese Government and he's been good enough to give us some of his time. Minister, thank you for coming on the program.


O'KEEFE: So, today's announcement, $90 million, might not touch the sides, but it's something.

O'CONNOR: Well, look, it's additional funding, so there's already, obviously, existing money for education and training, TAFE places in construction. With the fee-free places last year, we had 25,000 people enrolling in construction courses. This is an additional investment and I think it's going to help big time in terms of supplying the skills for the housing and construction sector. A sector that needs the skills, as you rightly say, to build the housing stock for the country.

O'KEEFE: Is it a problem that you've noticed, within Cabinet, within the government, that the rate of pay for apprentices is just not attractive enough to get the kids to do it?

O'CONNOR: I think that's one of the issues. There's no doubt apprenticeship wages has a bearing on people enrolling and sticking with an apprenticeship. But we have to understand, people are undergoing training in workplaces. They're not fully fledged employees, they don't have all the skill set and they're also benefiting because, as you said, you made the comparison about pulling drinks in a pub and getting an apprenticeship wage. But of course, after the acquisition of the apprenticeship, you're going to get much more money than people behind a bar pulling beers. Medium and longer term they are much, much better off. Quality of life, better wages, secure employment, everything.

O'KEEFE: But that's sort of an assumption that the first-year apprentice on $500 a week is still living at home. You can't really live on $500 a week in a capital city if you don't have a support network of your family, though.

O'CONNOR: No, so what I'm saying is, obviously, there are people who are not living at home, living on apprenticeship wages is not easy. They can, you know, in many instances, access loans. That happens as well. And remember, people going through learning at universities don't get wages. The reason why it's different for apprentices is because they contribute to workplaces, but they're still undergoing training and we've got to get the balance right. Now, remember, it's a minimum wage, an employer can pay them whatever they want. It's only that they can't pay them less than that. And let me tell you, there are some employers out there, Chris, that actually pay a bit higher than the minimum rate because they want to welcome those apprentices, they want them to stay on as tradies. And so you see, in many instances, a case where employers will pay above it. But look, we're reviewing the wages. We're undertaking a broad ranging review to look at how do we improve completions, and of course, that's part of it. But it's also better mentoring, better support in workplaces and more welcoming, so they stick with it. Because it's not easy, as you say, many of them are young people, they haven't spent a lot of time in workplaces and they have to be treated in a way that you acknowledge that they're novices in workplaces often.

O'KEEFE: What is it about completions? I've had a lot of small businesses - we've spoken to them on this program many times over the last year and a bit - where they say they employ an apprentice and then they just stop showing up.

O'CONNOR: Yeah, it can be a lot of things, as you say, I think wages is part of that. I think sometimes not getting the right support. Sometimes they've made a mistake, that is, they've gone into a course and realised it's not for them. That does happen. It happens at universities, it happens at TAFEs, it happens in people undergoing training. Or they go and get a really attractive job. As you say, sometimes people will forego education and training to get a better-paid job, that happens. They go into another line of work. These things do happen, but I am confident that if we improve the way we support them, improve the way that we attract apprentices, provide the support in workplaces, we'll see a better completion rate. And that's for the review to recommend to us what next to do. But also, it doesn't hurt when you remove the fees from courses, that is a really big support for people undergoing training. You know, they're having to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to undergo this course. Well, today the announcement is for 20,000 places in construction where they do not have to find money to pay fees. That's one way we can provide support for these young people so that they can acquire skills and have meaningful work through the rest of their lives.

O'KEEFE: And these young people, Minister, you feel like just getting in front of them and saying – because, I could tell you right now, if I had my time over again, I'd be a tradie, not a radio host.

O'CONNOR: Well, you know what, some of the teachers, some of the great teachers --

O'KEEFE: They make a fortune.

O'CONNOR: Some of the great teachers and trainers in the VET sector, in TAFEs, are actually former builders and they've got great stories. They've decided to move into the training because you know, they're getting older, but they had really successful lives as tradespeople in the construction sector. High wages, very good work. And so often their teachers and trainers tell them all the benefits they will get if they acquire those skills. But you're right, sometimes young people don't look that far ahead. Our job is to encourage them to stick with it. It's not just important for them, it's important for businesses crying out for the skills and critical for our economy.

O'KEEFE: It's critical for Australia. Minister, at least you're trying, and I appreciate that. Thank you for coming on.

O'CONNOR: Not at all. Thanks for your time.

O'KEEFE: That’s Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Skills and Training.