Release type: Transcript


Interview with Sarah Macdonald, ABC Sydney


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

SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Are you doing a TAFE course? What are you studying and what impact is it having on you? We know that we need more builders and more tradies if we are to build the homes we need in Sydney. And whenever we talk about this, I get a couple of calls saying there's no TAFE spots for those who are keen.

There are a lot of people going to TAFE though now for free. More than 182,000 people in New South Wales alone in Fee‑Free TAFE during 2023. Now they were working in areas such as education, health, construction and IT, or wanting to do so, and hence the TAFE course to get them there, all without having to pay for it.

Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Skills Minister and with me now. Good morning Minister.


HOST: Was this what you were expecting, these numbers of enrolments?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: They're larger than we thought but it speaks to the need to supply the skills to the economy of New South Wales and Australia. As you know, when we were elected the skills shortages were deep as they were wide. We convened the Jobs and Skills Summit and we set ourselves a target nationally of 180,000 additional places in TAFE, removing the fees to encourage people to enrol in areas of demand, like construction that you just mentioned, like the care sector.

However, nationally we've effectively doubled that target for 2023. In New South Wales, a remarkable success in the sense that we've got 182,000 people in New South Wales enrolling in these courses. And these courses are providing skills that are very much needed in our economy, as you mentioned, technology and digital, the construction sector, the care economy, the energy sector in particular, with going through its transition.

So, to date it's been going very well. We've got additional Fee‑Free places for this year and beyond because we need to, one, remove cost barriers, particularly when people are struggling to make ends meet, and we need to encourage people to acquire skills where they're needed today and tomorrow.

HOST: And are you tracking these people to see whether they're going into the areas and getting jobs in the areas we need?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Look, one of the things I've sought to do as the Federal Minister is to make sure we get much better data collected nationally and I'm, for example, working with the Minns Government, my counterpart Minister Steve Whan in this area, to make sure we are tracking, not only people enrolling but then completing and then getting a job in the sector that they've acquired the skill.

The other important point to make I think is that a very high number of these 182,000 people in New South Wales come from regional New South Wales, which have massive skills demand issues as well.

And it's not just one sector, Sarah. If it was one sector we probably could solve this challenge easily. But it's every sector of the economy, wherever you look, the trades, the care economy, the tech sector. But that's why we need to keep going and we've got a lot more to do, but there's very positive signs to date.

HOST: When you say care sector, so nearly 35,000 in terms of enrolments in the care sector. What do you mean by that? What kind of jobs are they being trained for, for free?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Predominantly aged care, disability care, and then of course we've got a separate section which I haven't got the collated figure in New South Wales at this point, but I will get it, but there's also early childhood education and care, which is the combination of course of education and care.

So, all the areas where there's growing demand to supply workers to look after older Australians, to look after kids pre‑school, to look after people with disability, there's so much demand and these courses are encouraging people because not only will they acquire the skills but there are jobs waiting for them if they get their accreditation.

HOST: Yeah, you would imagine they'd be snapped up very quickly.


HOST: Brendan O'Connor is with me on ABC Radio Sydney, Federal Minister for Skills and Training. You mentioned the construction sector, 8,728 people taking up these free courses in TAFE in construction, and there has been warnings from the Master Builders Association today saying that the plummeting number of apprentices and school leavers who are studying the trades will really cripple the plan to build more homes in New South Wales this year. We need 75,000 or so.

So, we need a lot more. Are you being able to find the teachers that you need in the construction sector? Because whenever we talk about this people say, "My son was doing an apprenticeship, but he couldn't find a TAFE spot".

MINISTER O'CONNOR: I'm happy to say there are more places in TAFEs and other VET providers to ensure that we get more apprentices in traditional trades. It has to happen. And I'm working with Julie Collins in the housing and construction sector and also with Catherine King in infrastructure to make sure we match up the federal investment with state investment to supply the skills.

But the question you raised about do we have sufficient teachers is a vexed one and I'm working with State and Territory ministers and with industry to say we need to solve this problem. Because as you must understand, Sarah, there are people who find that they'll have to take a pay cut to go and train people in the VET sector, in a TAFE, leaving the construction sector, and therefore we need to encourage people to do that if they're looking to do it. And I need industry to understand that if they need the skills for their industry, which they do in construction, then we need to work out a better way of supplying the trainers and teachers needed -  

HOST: Yes, but that's tricky because if they leave the job to become a TAFE teacher then they're not doing the building.

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well, that's true, but as you know, you teach people to fish, you know, the other people start fishing. The fact is if you've got one person, a trades person, an experienced qualified person training 15 apprentices, that ultimately is going to lead to a very significant benefit for the sector.

So, you have to make a decision, I believe, to deploy people and encourage people, and yes, support people to go into the VET sector to provide the training and teaching to the apprentices. That's ultimately going to be a windfall for the sector and major companies in the construction sector are up, I believe, for that conversation, for a sort of a government/industry compact to supply trainers and teachers in construction because we really have to ensure we've got sufficient teachers to do the job.

HOST: Right. So, kind of subsidise those people from companies working in TAFE, or are you hoping to give them a big pay rise in TAFE?

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well, we have to be careful about that, you know, this is taxpayer's money when we're investing across the education and training sector, and it's not like, as I said, one sector is dealing with acute shortages, they're everywhere.

But the construction sector understands how critical it is to supply those skills and I believe that they have an appetite for us to have an arrangement in place to deploy some of the people in the construction sector to help teach and train the apprentices, additional to the excellent teachers and trainers we have in TAFEs and the VET sector already, because it is not easy to find a supply and to deal with these skills shortages without an industry/government arrangement. So, I'll be talking further to the sector to see what we can do, to do that.

HOST: Thank you so much for your time this morning.

MINISTER O'CONNOR: Not at all, Sarah, thanks for the time and the invitation to come on. 

HOST: There's Brendan O'Connor, the Federal Minister for Skills and Training.