Release type: Speech


Keynote Address: ACCI & VECCI Business Lunch, Melbourne.


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

Thank you for inviting me here today.

This is a valuable opportunity to talk directly with you about government priorities in the skills and training portfolio, our immediate steps to tackle the most challenging skills and labour shortages to confront the country in decades, and next steps arising from the common ground achieved at the Jobs and Skills Summit.

Everyone in this room has an active role to play in addressing skills shortages and in building a stronger, more prosperous, and more secure Australia.

Yet if you’ve been reading the headlines lately, you can be forgiven for thinking that it is impossible to contribute ideas and find common ground anymore; that we have lost the ability to work our way through challenging issues, even when to do so is in the interests of the people we represent.

The Albanese Government is committed to governing differently.

There is no better example of how we can work differently together than the goodwill and collaboration that generated actions to address skills and labour shortages at last month’s Jobs and Skills Summit.

That doesn’t mean we agreed on everything.  It does mean that those who attended genuinely listened to a wide range of perspectives on critical issues, and that the government listened.

Immediate actions were agreed at the Summit which I’ll touch upon, and other matters of great importance to the economy were acknowledged.

For example, Summit participants from all walks of life acknowledged that increasing women’s participation in the workforce is a critical economic issue, and it is a national priority. Removing barriers to work that women face such as lack of affordable childcare, provision of inclusive workplaces, and provision of flexible work and work hours by employers, will unlock a crucial labour source for the economy.

It was also acknowledged by Summit participants that we have vast untapped resources in other groups who have been shut out of the labour market, including workers with disabilities. It is high time for them to be given a better go.

It was also acknowledged that genuine collaboration is required to tackle the worst skills shortages that our country has experienced in decades.

The Government’s approach to collaboration is inclusive and tripartite - governments, employers and unions, coming together to find common ground, and workable solutions to the significant challenges that we face as a nation.

Fortunately, when it comes to skills and training, governments, employers and unions usually find we agree much more than we disagree. 

In Skills and Training, I am committed to a tripartite approach in how we develop and implement policies, because it’s right thing to do, and it works.

For those in any doubt, I encourage you to take a look at the ‘Statement of Common Interests on Skills and Training’, released prior to the Jobs and Skills Summit by the ACTU, ACCI, the AiG and BCA.

Skills acquisition not only keeps Australians in secure, well-paid work; it ensures businesses like yours can be more productive, and not just survive but thrive.

This industry led statement provided a very significant contribution to the Summit and includes common themes on which the Government is now keenly focused. The ‘Statement of Common Interests’ provided the basis for several Summit outcomes on Skills and Training.

The Summit was a timely opportunity to focus on the tangible things we can do as a nation to ensure we have well rewarded and secure jobs for Australian workers, and workers with up-to-date skills needed by Australian businesses.

However, there are systemic issues we must tackle. 

We must focus on re-building and making both TAFE and the wider vocational education sector stronger.
We need this sector to work more closely with industry on the delivery of high-quality skills businesses like yours need, relevant and up to date skills, that equip students, apprentices and trainees for work now, and in the future.

It became clear to me in the first days of my role in the Skills and Training portfolio, that one of the biggest issues for the sector is the poor completion rates for our apprentices and trainees.

Over the last decade, the proportion of people completing apprenticeships fell, with the rate now at 55.7 per cent.

Low completion rates derail potential careers, they’re costly, and deprive the economy of much-needed skills.
That’s clearly not good enough.

There is also no point in boosting the number of apprenticeships if apprentices already in the system are not properly supported and leave before they get their qualification.

We need to fix the leaks in the bucket before we turn the tap on harder.

Our focus is on investing in priority occupations and providing the support apprentices need to complete their apprenticeship – alongside support from training providers and employers.

This Government will explore options to improve the apprenticeship support system, work with you to drive up completion rates, and create more opportunities for training that delivers more secure, more rewarding jobs.
We also need to ensure that people have the foundation skills required to access and fully participate in the labour market.

According to the OECD, a staggering 3 million adults in Australia lack the fundamental skills required to participate in training and secure work.  

These are skills such as basic literacy, digital literacy and numeracy skills required to participate in our economy and quite frankly, in our society.

They are core “learning to learn” skills, necessary to provide people access to an education and training system from which follows opportunities to develop careers and engage in lifelong learning. 

This is a clear focus for us.

Our government wants to support a VET sector that not only gets people into jobs, but also supports their lifelong learning, enabling workers to upskill and reskill throughout their time in the labour market.

I have asked my department to explore options to address this critical issue to make sure that no-one is held back and no-one is left behind.

And the input to the Summit showed that there are other issues that need addressing, which is why we’re moving quickly on a range of issues to help ease the pressure on businesses, whether they are SMEs or larger enterprises.

At the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Government committed to working with the states and territories to restart discussions for a 5-year National Skills Agreement to commence in 2024.

We’re finding common ground and working with states and territories in good faith, knowing that this is the best opportunity we have to make meaningful reforms to the skills sector.

The Prime Minister announced a $1 billion one-year National Skills Agreement at the Jobs and Skills Summit, to provide funding for 180,000 fee-free VET places in 2023, focused on TAFE, with costs shared by the states and territories on a 50:50 basis.

I am pleased to be able to report constructive and productive discussions with my state and territory ministerial colleagues when we met here in Melbourne last Friday.

State and territories which directly fund TAFEs and community RTO providers and recommend the courses that are to be funded, but I, in consultation with my Cabinet colleagues, have established the following priorities:

Care, including aged care, early childhood educators, health care, disability care:
•    Technology and increasing digital skills
•    Hospitality and tourism
•    Construction
•    Agriculture
•    Increasing our sovereign capability in areas like manufacturing, and Defence.

For the five-year National Agreement that will commence in 2024, the government will invest significantly over the five-year period, predicated on reaching agreement with the states and territories.

We will make sure that the agreement is fit for purpose for students, current workers, businesses, and the labour market, so we have the skills that are needed now – and the skills that will be in demand in the future.
Jobs and Skills Australia is going to be critical to identify and tackle our challenges.

That’s why it was the first legislation introduced by the Albanese Government.

It will not only use hard data to provide advice on the sectors that need the most support, but it will also undertake workforce planning.

Combining hard data with industry engagement will improve advice to inform government and industry action.

I’m glad that ACCI has put its support behind this new agency – I agree that it will be critical in unlocking the full potential of our workforce.

To that end its first piece of work will be a $1.9m comprehensive workforce capacity study on clean energy skills.

It will help support this important sector undergo a successful transformation by evaluating the workforce needed to help it rapidly expand so we reach net zero emissions by 2050.

And by supporting this critical sector, it will ensure there is clean, affordable, and reliable energy for the country.

As agreed at the Jobs and Skills Summit, a review into Australia’s skilled migration will help design JSA’s evidence-based role in developing skilled migration pathways.

We have committed to a tripartite approach to the new agency’s governance, and it will also be linking with Industry Clusters, providing an opportunity for strategic dialogue and engagement with industry leaders including employers, unions, and training providers.

We’ve also committed to develop a comprehensive blueprint to ensure a quality VET workforce.  Simply, the quality of the VET sector cannot exceed the capability of its workforce.

As ACCI has rightly pointed out, skilled migration is an important part of this solution – but it’s not a binary choice.

We must not choose between skilling our fellow Australians and utilising skilled migration.

We can–and must–do both.

We’ve got thousands and thousands of temporary visa holders who have been here for a decade in areas of skills shortage who can’t get permanent residency.

That's why my colleagues Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles are urgently clearing the backlog of visa applications and lifting the permanent migration intake to a record 195,000 people.

This will help businesses like yours, as we make sure Australians have the skills they need to thrive.

My department regulates skills assessment bodies that establish recognised prior learning for migrants. I am interested in engaging with you further on how this part of my portfolio can support the skilled migration program, and the Government’s shift in emphasis from temporary to permanent migration pathways.
All these reforms and promises won’t mean anything unless it works for businesses, as well as workers.
And the progress we made at the Summit won’t be sustained unless we keep engaging with industry bodies like yours.

In return, I’d ask you to continue engaging with us.

I’d invite you to provide submissions to the Employment White Paper, which are open until the end of November.

I am keen to hear from you about the contribution business is making to skills development, and the contribution you can make in the future.

I have high ambitions for our skills sector. It’s the key to the wellbeing of Australian workers, Australian businesses, and the wider economy.

It’s critical we work together, to make sure the VET sector is working for us.

Thank you.