Release type: Transcript


Interview - 3AW Drive with Jacqui Felgate


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


JACQUI FELGATE, HOST: The Federal Government has today announced a review of our Apprenticeships Incentive System because not enough apprentices are completing their qualifications. Why is that? Have you dropped out? If you're the boss of an apprentice, what has gone wrong? On the line now is Brendan O'Connor the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Good afternoon, Brendan, thanks so much for your time. What is going wrong with our kids not finishing their apprenticeships?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Yeah, look, we can do better. We've got great apprentices, we've got some fantastic employers who want to give young people a go. But in the last ten years - 2012, we had 57,000 Australians complete a trade apprenticeship, and by 2021, that had dropped by about 20,000. So, we need to do better in the way we support apprentices and the way we support employers who take on an apprentice. 

And we're going to examine that, look at all the reasons. Obviously, one of them is difficulty living on an apprentice wage. But there is also so many other reasons, including some employers are really good at providing support and care for these young people and some employees have not had that experience. And so there are variations across the labour market, across workplaces in Australia, we need to do better.

HOST: So, how much is the average apprentice wage and how old are the kids who are dropping out?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well, apprenticeship wages tend to be lower than the minimum wage because they're young, they're being trained, they're in an apprenticeship and because it's accepted that they're learning skills in an educative way for their own future, for the future of - no doubt - for some of the employers they work with, there's a concession that they won't receive a full adult wage. That has happened. 

But at a time when things are tough, cost of living pressures are acute, we have to look at how we can make things better for them. We've done that in some areas, bringing in Fee-Free TAFE has removed costs for apprentices enrolling in those courses, and sometimes employers, who actually pay the fees in some of these TAFE courses. So, that's good. 

We're providing access to loans that only have to be paid back once you receive a certain amount of income - that's some support. But we have to look at it across the board. And that's why we've announced a review, we've got Justice Iain Ross and Lisa Paul, an eminent public servant who are looking at this area, who've worked in this field and will be talking to employers, large and small, and apprentices about, as you just said when you spoke to your listeners, what is it that's made it difficult to keep going on, keep staying in the apprenticeship? And how hard is it sometimes for employers, particularly smaller ones, having the resources to take care of people who are just learning?

HOST: Do you think there's this mindset as well that we need to change about children or young people going to university rather than taking up a trade?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: I do. I think there's that as well. I think for too long we have not understood that the vocational and education training pathway is as good a pathway to the labour market as universities. We've treated it too often as the second option, the poorer cousin, if you like, of the other tertiary sector. My view is you can get better-paid jobs, more secure jobs earlier with less debt, if you go into this area. 

And many of these jobs provide really great opportunities and great experiences. And that's what our message is to apprentices, that you really do have great chances of getting secure work, skills that are in demand and career progression, sometimes running your own business or working in a larger employer in all sorts of ways, because you've picked up this qualification early in your working life. And we really do need them too, because there are skill shortages across each sector of the economy, including the traditional trades.

HOST: So, Brendan, do you think young people - some young people - also have an attitude problem? We spoke to Mick just before your interview and he said that they just aren't motivated enough to continue apprenticeships and they just quit.

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well, I've met some remarkable apprentices that have a passion for that area of work. And also, we should make sure that we're encouraging more women in traditionally male-dominated occupations because I've met some remarkable women who are now enlisting in these apprenticeships. So, I do think there's some very dedicated, very passionate apprentices. Not everyone is like that, and maybe not always the employers are up for supporting apprentices, but overwhelmingly the employers want to do the right thing and overwhelmingly apprentices want to finish. 

But sometimes, there are too many barriers to completion, including, as I say - cost of living pressures can be one, not even being sure about opportunities once you get the qualification. For example, where it's clear that an apprentice is likely or very likely or inevitable to get a job in the workplace they're working, once they finish their apprenticeship, they are more likely to finish and complete it because they can see there's a line of sight between their apprenticeship and that job. So, when that can happen and that can't happen in every circumstance, it does increase the likelihood of completion.

HOST: Okay, can I just ask you, finally, do you think the construction industry in Australia is in crisis? Every week we speak to tradies, they're concerned about building companies going under, not enough workforce and not enough material to go around. How do we fix this?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: I think it's true that we've had real pressures on supply chains globally through the pandemic. And since the pandemic, those supply chains are still recovering. And you can see that in terms of not just the construction sector, but they would feel it acutely. And, yes, when we got into government, we had one of the worst skills shortages in 50 years across all sectors of the economy, including construction. 

So, we need to invest in a smart way to increase the likelihood that apprentices will finish these qualifications. Because, you see, some people can acquire skills, drop out and still work in the labour market, but if you're a sparky or a plumber, you have to get the accredited ticket because you're not in a position to work with energy, electricity, if you are not a qualified electrician. 

So, completion is critical in some areas, including those trades in the construction sector. So, I want to find the answers to this. That's why we've got this review. It will inform government and industry, and then we'll look to reform the sector so we can supply those skills into that construction sector and other sectors. So, employers are getting the skills they're crying out for and apprentices are getting great jobs.

HOST: Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Appreciate your time this afternoon, Minister.