Topics: Investment into VET sector, Care sector pay, Israel’s response to Gaza.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: The Federal Government has struck a deal with the States and Territories and there will be up to $13 billion extra invested within the vocational and education training sector. This is something, more skills, that is, that business has been crying out for. So, is this the answer that they wanted? Joining me now is Skills and Training Minister, Brendan O'Connor. Thanks for your time. Took a while to get this done, even though everyone agrees we need skills, we need training. What was the hold out, why is this -
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Firstly, it's a five-year agreement, it's a landmark agreement. We have not had an agreement of this scale and duration for more than a decade. Didn't happen under any of the Coalition governments in the last decade.
So, what we did in the first instance was call the Jobs and Skills Summit, invest in fee-free TAFE and announced the investment for that. We've delivered beyond our commitment of 180,000 fee-free TAFE places this year, with 215,000 so far. And while we were investing in TAFE, removing cost barriers in areas of skills shortage, we negotiated with eight other governments to land this agreement, as I say, the first time in a decade, which will provide an agreement that will strategically invest in areas of skills - in skill areas that are in demand today and tomorrow.
That's the key. And if you don't engage the States and Territories, Tom, given that they actually invest more than the Commonwealth, you do not have any strategic stewardship of the way in which the VET sector has to work with business and the university sector to deliver the skills needed.
CONNELL: So, when you talk about that aspect of delivering on those shortages, I know you singled out, for example, renewable sectors, there's obviously the care sector as well. I'm just interested in how they're both sort of treated because I imagine a lot of these renewable jobs could be quite high paying, but we know that the issue with, say, aged care and childcare has been getting people enough pay. Do you need to create extra incentive for care workers, if you like, on the financial side?
O’CONNOR: It's a good question. Firstly, people quite often work in those sectors because they're committed people, they love the type of work they do, but we have invested in increasing wages and have seen a 15 per cent wage increase for aged care workers which the Commonwealth invested in which means that we retain and attract people and they deserve that increase because of the work they do to look after older Australians.
As a first world nation, as a rich nation, we have to look after our older Australians and we're doing so through improving and providing good wages which means you have people that are better skilled and likely to stay in the sector. But there's so much more in the care economy that's required. Because of our demographic, we're going to have increased demands on that sector.
CONNELL: When you say so much more, so many more people will need care?
O’CONNOR: We're going to have more people in care, therefore, we need more people to care in those positions and, therefore, when we're looking at how we invest in skills, we have to, much more effectively, anticipate where the demands will be and ensure we invest in those areas.
CONNELL: Have we seen a split or a sort of more people going into aged care versus childcare because there is the pay boost for aged care but there isn't one yet for childcare?
O’CONNOR: I don't think we've seen that at this point, but I think there's no doubt that early childhood educators, what's expected of them today, will mean that there would be an expectation of increased wages, purely on the basis of the skills that will be required, both care and education.
CONNELL: So how does that play out? Is that going to have to be a government thing as well?
O’CONNOR: It's not entirely government. Obviously, the Fair Work Commission’s parameters of today, allows for workers like early childhood educators to make a case for - work value case, to have their wages commensurate with their skills and responsibilities. So that's important, too.
O’CONNOR: But first and foremost, we need to skill people up in these areas. There is already demand. People are interested in the areas, but right now there are shortages across our economy, across so many sectors of our economy and that's why we need the skills agreement, and we need to invest in the areas where the demand is.
CONNELL: Just one more on this, though, because obviously you say well, you know, you're implying there will be a pay rise at some stage. For aged care, the Government said it's needed now, we'll pay for it. Is that ultimately what will need to happen with childcare because otherwise you make it more expensive, it's going to be the parents or the Government that picks up the bill, presumably?
O’CONNOR: As I say, there's no doubt when you're looking at people's skill sets, we need to make sure there's a capacity to - for an independent body like the Fair Work Commission - to consider whether their wages are commensurate with their skills and responsibility. There is that mechanism now. My focus is to make sure that we deliver the investment so that there are sufficient courses in the sector so that people can be trained in these areas. I'm not suggesting it's not important or is as important, but we also have to invest in skills and training to deliver the skills that are needed for the workers, the businesses and the economy.
CONNELL: When it comes to people picking up these courses, is there almost a cultural shift needed that we had a gradual increase over many decades of more and more Australians going to university and that became a sort of holy grail and some people almost think don't do TAFE, you know, you've got good marks, do university?
O’CONNOR: I think we have actually let down the VET sector and in doing so let down the country in some ways because nine out of every ten future jobs require a post-secondary school education. Almost half of those come from VET. If we don't have the technically trained people in the traditional trades, the care economy, we cannot look after our society.
CONNELL: And is it almost cultural, do you think?
O’CONNOR: I think it is partly a failure of leadership in the sense that we haven't explained that there are as many good opportunities in pathways to the employment market by undertaking VET as it is going to university. I think that's where you see the Prime Minister more often at a TAFE because he wants to elevate the status of the VET sector because they have good well-paid, high-skilled jobs and they're critical to our economy and society.
CONNELL: Success here, would it mean that we can take some of the strain off how high we will need immigration? If we can't upskill, we'll need people to come here and do these jobs but our infrastructure's sort of struggling. Is that sort of your job as minister, to try to ease the pressure on the immigration level that we might need?
O’CONNOR: In part, we shouldn't be overly reliant on skilled migration, but skilled migration is a part of the solution. It's not a binary choice but, Tom, you're right. If we invest in our own people, we then don't overly rely.
CONNELL: It's not saying immigration is bad.
O’CONNOR: No, no.
CONNELL: But otherwise, the burden can be pushed too much onto it -
O’CONNOR: One of the mistakes we make is we don't know - we don't always anticipate what is needed in our economy that's why we established Jobs and Skills Australia.
We do that so that when we make skilled migration decisions and we make investment in education and training, and that includes universities that Jason Clare's working on, we do so with the full knowledge of what our economy needs and what we need for the future. We do that through a better approach and this agreement between the governments is a very good landmark decision that will help.
CONNELL: Just finally, we had earlier in the show the latest on the situation in Israel. We heard Australia's Foreign Minister say, I think it was last week initially, you know, Israel is entitled to defend itself, but it should have restraint, and we saw earlier hospitals saying they're going to run out of power soon and places running out of water. Is that going too far, Israel cutting off Gaza's water and energy supply to civilians?
O’CONNOR: Firstly, the attack by Hamas on Israel was just brutal and reprehensible and it meant that there was going to be a response by Israel. But Australia obviously is concerned, first and foremost, for the Australians that are there. We want to make sure we do what we can to help them if they're looking to leave that area. And I think we will want to see some restraint where possible. I mean what we don't want -
CONNELL: What does that mean? I mean is cutting off energy and water too blunt a tool to all of Gaza, or to half of Gaza?
O’CONNOR: Look, can I just say in relation to Israel's response, it was inevitable and understandable there would be a significant response given the brutality of the attacks on innocent civilians - women, children, and men - in the way in which it happened. But at some point there has to be reflection on the extent to which civilians, wherever they're located, are affected, and I think there's a point where that conversation has to be had and the UN agencies are looking after and providing relief to people and we'd hope at some point we can see some peace and settlement. But I have to say, Tom, that doesn't look like happening any time soon.
CONNELL: Minister, appreciate your time today. Thank you.
O’CONNOR: Thanks very much.
Topics: Investment into VET sector, Care sector pay, Israel’s response to Gaza.