Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Brisbane Mornings with Steve Austin


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

STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: Once upon a time, if you wanted your kids to be successful and have a career for the future, parents wanted them to be in law or medicine or something like that. I think the tables have turned. Now, if you want a financial future that's secure and means you'll have a job for life, it looks like you should be in trades. The reason is that the Federal Government has announced $10,000 in grants for apprentices in electrical trades, over and above a push in the area of apprenticeships in housing and construction. Joining me in the studio is Brendan O'Connor, the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Minister, good morning. Welcome to the studio.


AUSTIN: Explain the move to me. You announced a move to get more apprentices and now you're offering them money as well, $10,000.

O'CONNOR: Support for apprentices. It’s important to ensure we have completion in apprenticeships, especially where you need the accreditation, you need completion to actually do the job. And with electricians and plumbers and other trades you do need to complete so that you can work in the labour market, you can work in the energy sector, the manufacturing sector, the construction sector, wherever. We need to provide support too. They're pretty low wages, as people know. If we can give them support through the course of their apprenticeship, they are more likely to continue and they can afford to continue to complete. And without those electricians, we need at least an additional 32,000 by 2030, we are not going to be able to transition our economy. We will not be able to decarbonise it, we will not be able to ensure we've got great, as you just said, well paid, secure work for many, many young people.

AUSTIN: 32,000 by 2030. How many of those in Queensland do you know?

O'CONNOR: I'm not sure. I'd say it'd be about 25 per cent of that, of the national economy, because energy plays a very important part of the Queensland economy. And when you talk about the transition that's occurring; shift to renewables, we need to make sure that in that transition, there are plenty of opportunities for well paid, highly skilled work.

AUSTIN: So, this is for the renewable energy transition specifically, 32,000 needed –

O'CONNOR: That's right.

AUSTIN: Two years before the Olympics.

O'CONNOR: By 2030 is required. Now, obviously, we have a lot of apprentices in train now. There is a big lag time. You're talking about a three, four year timeframe, so you need to start as early as you possibly can. And by the way, this investment is just part of the investment in the energy sector. And Chris Bowen and I will have more to say post budget as well on this front.

AUSTIN: The part of the requirement, apparently, is for the transition to electric vehicles, EVs. Is there a transition package for internal combustion engine workers? It's a massive sector of the Australian workforce and in this town it's huge. What do they do as we transition out of internal combustion engine towards electric vehicles?

O'CONNOR: Well, predominantly the investment in education and training now in apprentices is for fossil fuel engines and for combustion engines, internal combustion engines. And that will have to continue because the economy is going to transition over time. Predominantly people drive those types of vehicles, so overwhelmingly tradespeople work on those vehicles. But what we need to do, Steve, is make sure that as we transition, as EVs become a part of the market, we have people who can maintain those vehicles, who can build the recharging installation, install those recharging places, that can manufacture batteries for EVs. Massive change is happening now, right now in Queensland, and that's what we need to do, plan the transition. It's not about forgetting what we're doing now, it's about doing that, plus the change.

AUSTIN: Ok, if this was viable financially, why isn't private sector or private venture capital investing in this sort of thing? If it's financially viable, why aren't private companies doing this already?

O'CONNOR: Look, I think there is a bigger role for industry to play in supporting the skilling up of the workforce and indeed they do invest in their workforce. Of course, obviously they're providing wages to apprentices –

AUSTIN: - but they're not training enough apprentices?

O'CONNOR: I think some companies do better than others, but a lot of the small and medium enterprises - you've got to remember the nature of our economy these days, Steve, it's not like it's just the big public utilities and the sort of big private companies. There's a lot of SMEs. They need support, they need some help as well. It's not easy for a small company to take on an apprentice and look after them and mentor them totally without support. So, that's why we're providing support to employers as well as we provide support to apprentices. We need to do that. We need mentoring, we need support for apprentices so that get those skills that our economy will demand.

AUSTIN: My guest is Brendan O'Connor, the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Not just a couple of days ago you announced more apprentices to build construction for homes. Now, here in Queensland, the state government has announced a massive programme of building of infrastructure, an $86 billion range of projects in Queensland. They call it the Big Build and the constant theme we're hearing from industry is that the infrastructure build by government is sucking skilled labour away from housing construction. The fact that you're trying to boost housing construction apprenticeships is that an admission that it’s very clearly sucking skills away from building of homes?

O'CONNOR: All we're looking to do is to supply the skills in a very fast changing economy. We have skill shortages across the labour market, in professions, trades, occupations, in the care economy, in the housing construction sector. As you said, we know we have --

AUSTIN: - Because our housing build is slowing down. Despite the government throwing more money at it, it's actually slowing down.

O'CONNOR: Well, I can tell you the demand for these workers is present and if anything, it's increasing. And that's why we announced the $90 million investment in 20,000 apprentices in the housing and construction sector, because companies, industries’ crying out for these skills, they do not have sufficient number of skills in the housing sector. That, again, is just an additional investment. It's not like we're not already doing other things, but we do need to invest money where the demand is so that not only workers get jobs that are available today and tomorrow, but also businesses get the skills that they require to do their job.

AUSTIN: What range of support or benefits are currently on offer for apprentices? Because they already get tool allowances, they get vehicle allowances, they get tax deduction. Can you rattle them off on the top of your head?

O'CONNOR: It can vary. The tool allowance is not in most of the initiative supports. That sort of support is sometimes there and sometimes it's not. The energy apprenticeship programme that we're talking about this morning. I'm going out to talk to some apprentices. That's probably as generous as possible. $10,000 over the four year period. But there are other apprentices that will be receiving thousands of dollars of support. It's just really to make sure that we're investing. The industry and taxpayers invest a lot of money in apprentices. If they don't complete, we're not really getting value for dollar. But we do need these skills in our economy, if you want to have --

AUSTIN: Are our apprentices not completing their apprenticeship?

O'CONNOR: When we came to government two years ago, the completion rate was at 54 per cent.

AUSTIN: Why is that so low, Minister?

O'CONNOR: For a variety of reasons. One is, it's not easy to live on apprenticeship wages, especially at a time when things are tough. Two, not all workplaces are supportive and perhaps provide the mentoring that's required. Sometimes people make the wrong call. And that's why the announcement I made this week about pre-apprenticeships is to make sure when young people at high school start looking at trades, they know they want to go into that area and they get a taste of it before they then start their full apprenticeship, because too often people make mistakes as to which pathway they take to tertiary education.

AUSTIN: So, you want to lift that apprenticeship completion rate from 54 per cent to what? By when?

O'CONNOR: Well, I haven't got a figure, but we have to lift it. And I've just commissioned a review headed by Justice Iain Ross, former President of the Fair Work Commission, and Lisa Paul, the Former Secretary of the Department of Employment. That review is being undertaken right now. And so, we're inviting businesses and industry groups to talk to that review about the --

AUSTIN: To try and find out why they're not completing.

O'CONNOR: To increase the completion rate because it's absolutely critical that we do.

AUSTIN: And you hope this $10,000 will solve that problem in part.

O'CONNOR: Well, in the meantime, we're going to have more energy apprenticeship support because we'll need to supply the skills to the energy sector. But, of course, with sparkies, they're in energy, they're in manufacturing, they're in automotive, they're in housing and construction.

AUSTIN: And if you don't reach that 32,000 apprentices in electrical trades by 2030, will we be able to do the clean energy transition?

O'CONNOR: We need the skills to deliver to our labour market if we're going to realise the Future Made in Australia, if we're going to transition the energy sector. If we're going to do these things, if we're going to realise the ambition of the AUKUS deal with the UK and the United States, we need the skills to these areas of the labour market and economy. And through these forms of support, we will get better completion rates, better outcomes, a better supply of skills.

AUSTIN: My guest is Brendan O'Connor, he's the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. This is 612 ABC Brisbane. A couple more questions and I'll let you go, because I know you're on a timeline. We have an abnormally high level of immigration into Australia at the moment, extraordinarily high. Your government's argument has always been that it's to bring in the skilled labour required. What percentage of skills are coming in, in the area of construction for housing or skills for electrical trades, for instance, do you know?

O'CONNOR: Firstly, just in terms of the net migration that has been increased over time, after of course, we pretty much had a stop on immigration during the pandemic. So, in fact, in terms of forecasts of population, we're lower now than we would have been without the pandemic.

AUSTIN: The forecasts are lower, but the actual figure is extraordinarily high.

O'CONNOR: The number now is lower than what was forecast. The forecasts are pretty precise. Migration is going to moderate and temper because of demand. But in terms of your question, there are people on visas here that have got skills that could work in the construction sector. Part of my announcement this week was to say that we should be assessing very quickly the skills of visa migrants that are here in the country. And if they're driving Ubers or in hospitality and we could have them in the construction sector, let's assess their skills and let them work there, if that's what the businesses are crying out for, more labour. So, we're going to make sure we accelerate the assessment of people's competencies and skills and if they've got that capacity, then they can enter that work. So, that's people that -

AUSTIN: Do you know what the figure is of skilled labour? Of actual skills, say, in housing and construction?

O'CONNOR: Not readily. But I'll just say this, that obviously our skilled migration pathways should match the areas of demand. And, of course, it's only a supplement, Steve. The predominant focus of the government is focusing on educating and training people here. Australians getting the skills they need to supply the skills to our economy, our labour market. That's good for workers, good for businesses and good for the country.

AUSTIN: My guest is Brendan O'Connor. The Australian Financial Review has done a major piece saying that the Albanese team, the Federal Government, is trying to restore the faith of Queenslanders in Federal Labor. Is this one of the ways of doing that? Promoting, putting a lot of money into renewable energy, training people up, supporting the renewable energy programme here in Queensland.

O'CONNOR: Look, it's a national project, but of course, Queensland has a huge part to play in the transition of the energy sector, as it has in so many other areas of the economy. And I'm very happy to be here today and obviously to talk to apprentices in Brisbane. I'll be coming here throughout this year because my job as a Federal Minister is to visit parts of Australia and talk to people about what is needed. We're listening. As a government, we want to respond to the needs of communities across the country, including, of course, in this great state of Queensland.

AUSTIN: Does Federal Labor still have a problem in Queensland? You only have five MPs out of a potential 30, and none of them are north of Brisbane.

O'CONNOR: Look, of course we could do better, and we need to listen and respond to the needs of Queenslanders as we do to every other part of Australia? Of course, we want to make sure that we are responding to the needs and aspirations of people throughout the country, including here.

AUSTIN: Minister, one quick final question from a listener. I should have asked this earlier on. Is there openness or a chance for apprentices over the age of 40 or over the age of 50 to do an apprenticeship? We treat it as a young new apprentice.

O'CONNOR: I'm not sure there's an age limit. In fact, there's a lot of mature age apprentices because people change careers. And I've met people in their thirties and forties. Fifties? I haven't yet met anyone that was 50, but they probably may well be in certain areas.

AUSTIN: So, they're not barred from applying.

O'CONNOR: I don't think there's any prescription. And there's plenty of people in mature age and of middle age that are now in traineeships and apprenticeships. If we need the skills and they've got the capabilities, we want people to obviously fill those gaps. The focus is on younger people, but we do have people changing careers and changing occupations. And where there are skill demands, we've got to encourage people to enrol in those areas.

AUSTIN: Minister, thanks for coming in.

O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, Steve.

AUSTIN: Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training.