RICHARD PASCOE, HOST: Coming up, we’re going to have Brendan O’Connor and the Minister for Skills and Training. And right now I have him on the line. Good morning, Minister. Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Skills and Training.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good morning, Richard.
PASCOE: Wonderful to have you on the – on air with me today on FiveAA. We’ve got a shortage of workers, don’t we?
O’CONNOR: We do. We have a skill shortage across the economy. When we came to government federally the Albanese government inherited a very significant skill shortage, which we’re needing to attend to. That’s why we have now had 300,000 Australians in fee-free TAFE. We’ve got an additional 300,000 courses starting from this year, and I encourage your listeners to consider that great pathway to the labour market. And, of course, in energy we have a very significant challenge in transforming that sector and providing enough, you know, renewable energy technicians and workers to ensure that we get to net zero by 2050. So a huge job ahead, but really focused on the task that needs to be done.
PASCOE: Do you think in schools that we’re offering enough to, you know – because a lot of times I get parents go, “Well, you know, my son wants to go to university.” And I always go, “You know, have you ever considered a trade?”
O’CONNOR: Yeah, well, it’s not – yeah. Well, look, there’s been a natural bias in recent decades towards university. And, of course, universities provide a great pathway. What people don’t always understand is that 50 per cent or just under 50 per cent of the skills required for our economy come from the VET sector – TAFEs and other providers. Some of the jobs are as secure or more secure, as well paid or more well paid than university jobs – that is jobs coming out of courses acquired at university. And it’s not always the kids that say they want to go to universities; it’s often teachers and parents have a natural sense that that’s the better option.
O’CONNOR: Whereas what we’re trying to disabuse people of is that these are equal pathways with fantastic career paths provided you acquire skills in demand and continue to acquire skills through your working life, which is what’s required these days.
PASCOE: The New Energy Apprenticeships Program, that offered support to 10,000 apprentices, but only 1,787 have picked it up almost a year after it was launched. You wouldn’t be happy about that at all, would you?
O’CONNOR: No, we’d like to see more there. I think it’s – it’s increasing faster now than it was at the beginning. I think, look, as a country we were really having a debate about whether even climate change was real only some years ago.
O’CONNOR: And because of that denial and delay I think a lot of things, including focusing on renewable energy as the primary source of our energy in this country in the future, has been not a priority. It is a priority of the Albanese government. So that’s why we introduced these new energy apprenticeship positions. There are places that people can take up and they get up to $10,000 support for an apprentice. So, this is the most support we’ve provided any apprentice or any apprenticeship in recent years, and it’s – what an area to acquire skills in. This is going to have, you know, hundreds of thousands of new jobs, well-paid, highly skilled. And it’s something that I know many young men and women are interested in enrolling in and we encourage them to consider it seriously, because there are great opportunities in this sector.
PASCOE: Especially with the Electrical Trades Union needs an additional 32,000 electricians. Now, I talked to somebody who said that their son is in his early 20s and was debating whether to be an electrician or not, and I said, “I reckon he should roar into it at a million miles an hour, you know, for it.” And, you know, it was, “Well, you know, school put me off a bit,” and, you know, it really is a publicity thing for you at the moment, isn’t it?
O’CONNOR: Well, look, we’re looking to get out there and make it very clear not only are there huge economic benefits obvious of us transforming to cheaper, more reliable constant energy, but it is actually – there’s another dimension to this when I talk to young apprentices they’re very conscious of, which is reducing carbon emissions both domestically and globally. And they see that role as important. I mean, apart from the obvious traditional requirements of supplying energy to households and businesses, there’s this extra dimension that people, particularly younger people, are aware of in the need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change, which, you know, is coming up when I speak to young apprentices and workplaces.
So I do think there’s more things now that motivate people to come into the sector, including the traditional ones, which is high pay, you know, secure work, always in demand. And so it’s such a great pathway to the labour market and there are - because we’re providing such significant support I think it’s a great opportunity for people to consider. Some people moving, shifting careers, young people entering the labour market thinking of this. As I say, university is a great pathway to the labour market; so too are TAFEs and the VET sector generally.
PASCOE: And let’s dispel a myth – electricians earn good money, don’t they?
O’CONNOR: They do earn good money. I think people are aware that because of their skills, their responsibility also, you know, the real care you need to take in the work in which you do, they are well remunerated, and also some transition into higher conditions beyond the trades levels. And as you see, as is the case around the world, increasingly electricians, if they choose to, can go into engineering and into other areas of work. So too here – there are opportunities for people not only to acquire trades early on in their working life but also to acquire new skills and knowledge to take them into even further and more ambitious fields.
PASCOE: The rate that apprentices complete everything, it’s too low, isn’t it?
O’CONNOR: Yeah, it is.
PASCOE: It is far too – how do we address that issue?
O’CONNOR: Okay, it’s quite complex. One of the reasons always is the fact that apprentices are not paid well enough. But we can’t just throw money at the problem; we do need to look at how do we attract and retain apprentices so they complete apprenticeships, especially when, Richard, the certification is required. There are some areas that people learn and don’t finish their apprenticeship but they can go on to do work. That’s not the case with plumbing or electrical work. Because of the high public safety requirements of course they need to complete their apprenticeships to actually work in that area. And we need to look at all the reasons why the completion rate is woefully low historically. It’s just over 50 per cent. Now, what a waste of opportunity and a waste of taxpayers’ money and of other people’s money if they’re not finishing because they cannot then go into work in that field without that qualification.
So I can assure you, the Albanese government this year is examining root and branch the causes of low completion rates with a view to increasing them so that we can, you know, spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently, ensure people who make, you know, long-term commitments to acquiring skills can actually finalise those courses and get into great work. This is going to be a focus of mine this year and we’ll be looking at talking to all stakeholders – employers, apprentices and others that rely upon the energy sector and other trades – to work through how we can lift completion rates. Because, as you say, way too low. Needs to be addressed.
PASCOE: It would be far better to do it this way, getting all of the local people that we’ve got here into these sort of jobs rather than bringing in skilled migrants, wouldn’t it?
PASCOE: It becomes more cost effective in the long run, doesn’t it?
O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, a national government’s responsibility – indeed, state and territory governments too – is to provide opportunities for workers in this country to get into decent work. And I take that responsibility very seriously. Of course, it’s a combination of education and training of our local workforce supplemented by skilled migration. That’s always been the case. But we should not overly rely upon skilled migration at the expense of training and educating locals. We need to make sure our investment is in areas where there is demand today and demand tomorrow so that when we invest in people’s education and training they are acquiring skills and knowledge in areas of current and future demand. That, I think, is a responsibility of governments and employers and industry and unions, who also play a role in this area. And I do think that, yes, skilled migration is always going to be critical for our economy for lots of reasons to fill gaps, but it can’t be the place that you go to first. It is definitely an addition to educating and training people.
PASCOE: Just had the texts come in – “My son’s on first-year traineeship and is on $14 an hour. He’s 19 years old. Terrible pay.”
O’CONNOR: Yeah, that’s one of the real difficulties with apprenticeships because, as you know, some people go into university. They don’t get paid to go to university, they don’t have placements. Apprentices are lowly paid but they are learning skills. So you have to get that mix right. If we can see ways to lift support, provide other support, we do have loans support. We do allow apprentices to acquire loans and they’re very – you know, and they can repay those loans over time only once they’re earning a certain amount of money post apprenticeship. So there is support for people not only the subsidies that we’re providing in the case of the energy apprenticeships but we’re also providing the access to loans, which are only payable once they reach a certain amount of income post-apprenticeship.
And, yes, look, it is – look, what I would say to a young person is if they are able to sustain themselves and acquire those skills, the benefits beyond the apprenticeship are worth it because the money – there’s no doubt, if you acquire a very important trade or traineeship in areas of demand, your wages will not only be significantly better, but you’ll have more secure employment as a result.
PASCOE: Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Skills and Training, thank you very much for taking time to talk to me today.
O’CONNOR: Not at all.
PASCOE: I really appreciate it.
O’CONNOR: No, and I appreciate your interest, too. Thank you. And I’m happy to talk to you again if we can.
PASCOE: Thank you. Brendan O’Connor, the Minister.