Release type: Transcript


Speech - Address to Careers for Net Zero Fair (Melbourne) 


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

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, traditional custodians of the land on which I’m speaking today and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
It's great to be here. There was a point in time where I was to be in Parliament, but there was a change of parliamentary sitting schedule, which allowed for me to be here today instead. 
In fact, I thought I was going to have a light week, but once people realised I wasn't in Canberra, cleverly they sought my attendance at a number of events, and I have to say, this is a very important one. 
And I'm very happy to be here and I thank the organisers for thinking of me in this invitation, because what you're discussing and listening to, what you're engaging in today is a critical matter for this country and for this world. 
And we need more gatherings like this to work through the very significant environmental challenges that we confront. 
So can I first start by highlighting the important role many here are playing in our transformation to a clean energy future, a transformation that comes with many opportunities and a few challenges, there's no doubt about that. 
In fact, the transition has been identified as one of the most significant transformations facing the Australian labour market and our economy. 
The opportunities are diverse and we want to make the most of them. So yes, on one hand, critical environmental challenge, but plenty of economic opportunities as well. 
Last week, the Prime Minister and Premiers and Chief Ministers endorsed a National Skills Agreement for the first time in a decade.
So, for the first time, we now have a five-year agreement, bringing together the federal government, state and territory governments on the VET sector, to ensure that we supply the skills that are needed in our economy, including in, of course, the energy sector, given the transformation is a priority of ours. 
So, for a decade we were bereft of any collaborative arrangement between the federal and state governments, and that's, I'm glad to say, come to an end with that agreement.
I want to thank my counterparts; Skills Ministers, Education and Skills Ministers, and state and territory governments for their collaborative approach, their insights, the contributions they've made. 
Without that agreement and without other initiatives that are going on across the country, we will have great difficulty in supplying the skills to this sector of the economy, and therefore have great difficulty realising our ambition for net zero emissions by 2050. 
That's certainly important. 
It's the first agreement of its kind, as I say in a decade, and includes $12.6 billion from the Commonwealth. 
If indeed all of the state and territory governments match some of the money that's been provided by the federal government, we'll end up investing more than $30 billion in this agreement over the next five years, and that will contribute in a very significant way to supplying the skills that are needed. 
It will support nationally networked TAFE Centres of Excellence, that bring industry, universities and the VET sector together in a way we haven't seen in this country, and including of course, in the energy sector. 
For too long we've seen tertiary sectors delineated, as if the hand and the head are disconnected, as if technical skills and conceptual knowledge somehow should be taught apart from each other. 
That is not the way in which the modern economy works and the labour market works. 
And of course, we need to see a greater level of collaboration between the two tertiary sectors, so we're supplying the skills in the way that it is needed for the energy sector, for sovereign capability, for the care economy, for many sectors of the economy. 
And these Centres of Excellence that are going to be established as partnerships between the federal government and the state and territory governments, I think also add a significant contribution to our goals. 
It will accelerate also higher apprenticeships, to bridge the outdated divide between the VET and University sectors, with an aspiration to double the number of higher apprenticeships in five years in priority areas, including the clean energy sector.
We’re driving reforms to ensure qualifications are relevant, timely, affordable, and high quality and improving foundation skills delivery to respond to the alarming statistic, that one in five adults in this country have skills gaps in literacy, numeracy and digital literacy. 
It's very difficult to adapt and change and acquire knowledge and continue to upskill if you don't have foundation skills.
It is hard to believe in a country as prosperous as ours, one in five adults have deficiencies in this area, you need those foundation skills upon which to build the skills and we've invested more than we ever have in that area, as well. 
But it's also about how you bring this together. One of the concerns people have is the economy's moving rapidly, technological change is such that we have to respond more flexibly, adapt more quickly to that change. 
Therefore we need the right architecture, and it needs to involve the real economy. 
And that's why the government, the first legislation, the first bill introduced into the parliament at the federal level this parliamentary term was the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia, which is a body that will of course, collect public and private data to analyse the labour market, to anticipate more precisely the needs of the future in the labour market. 
But it also brings together real economy insight; industry, universities, the VET sector, in order to make sure that we have better advice, we are better advised as a government, better advised as a country, better advised as industry, to know where we invest in education and training. 
We do not, I believe, anticipate effectively enough where our labour market is moving, what the demands are, we've got general ideas, but we need to be far better. 
We spend billions and billions of public and private investment in skills and training and yet we don't always get it right, and we need to have that, that's why we established JSA. 
Also under that, part of the architecture, are Jobs and Skills Councils. 
Made up of industry representatives and again education and training providers of different sectors of the economy. 
So, we really are having representatives of different sectors advising government, discussing issues about not only where the investment needs to be, but how you deliver certain courses, what courses have to change, to respond to what is needed in the workplace. 
Those things need to be done more effectively if we are going to realise this ambition. 
We've invested over $100 million over nine years to support apprenticeships in the energy sector. That's an additional investment. 
We're looking to ensure that we see more women, First Nations people, people from a range of backgrounds have hitherto, have often been overlooked. 
And we have these 10,000 New Energy Apprenticeship Initiative, which ensures that we are encouraging people to fill the demands that are clearly there. 
Now, the good news is that 1,400 apprentices have signed up for that initiative, nearly eight out of 10 of those are electricians, indeed critical to our clean energy workforce. 
One of our core commitments is in dealing with the skills crisis, making sure we create opportunities to people who have missed out in the past. 
For example, as part of achieving net zero by 2050, we need an estimated 32,000 more electricians over the next seven years. 
32,000 more electricians over the next seven years. 
And this demand for electricians only tells part of the story. Preliminary modelling suggests that we need close to 2 million workers in building and engineering trades by 2050. 
If we're to achieve this, it is imperative that we broaden our view of what our new energy worker looks like. 
The recently released JSA Clean Energy Capacity Study highlighted a very concerning workforce problem in the energy sector. 
We're not going to pull any punches here, we have to be I think, candid and frank about some of the challenges that we have in certain sectors of our economy, including the energy sector. 
The sector has the third highest incidence of workplace sexual harassment economy-wide, with 71% of women experiencing harassment in the last five years.
That's more than two in every three women. If the sector is to grow at the scale required, it needs safe participation of all parts of Australia’s population. 
There needs to be a change of culture, a change of mindset and shift away from an insular past to support a more diverse workforce of the future; women, First Nations people, people with disability, people shifting from one part of the economy to the other, people changing careers, who maybe haven't thought of the energy sector. 
If we're going to make sure we deliver the skills, the labour required to this remarkable sector that’s under enormous transformation, we have to open those doors. 
I mean what sort of business model in 2023 would start it from the presumption that you can ignore almost half the population and say they need not apply. 
This is not just a social good, this is an economic imperative. 
To open up opportunities for cohorts who have not been encouraged and unfortunately, often are not being supported and not been necessarily safe in workplaces. 
That has to change, if we're going to succeed in this area. 
And as a government, we will be engaging fully with the energy sector, employers and unions and others, about the best possible ways we can mitigate and end, wherever possible, that behaviour and that culture, that needs to quite frankly, disappear, because there should be no place for harassment in workplaces, in any sector of the economy in this country. 
So that's an important thing to note.
We need to see industry and employers take responsibility for their obligations. 
Most employers are model employers, they do the right thing: supportive, engaging, helpful, and they provide great support and great employment for working people. 
But there are too many at this point where that's not the case and we need to do better. 
And we need to have a standard by which we all accept, as what is acceptable in this area. 
So that's I think, an important thing that we need to look at, we should not be shying away from them, we need to confront them head on and deal with them and resolve them.
And from July 2024 to support this, our government will provide improved wraparound support and mentoring for key groups, including First Nations apprentices, women, people with disability who have a great contribution to make, we want to do that. 
And we want to do that by ensuring that our new apprentice support initiative is working effectively. 
We spend a lot of money, taxpayer money, on providing support for apprentices, we're looking to improve that support so that the support is more effective, more genuine, where apprentices really do feel that they're going to get what is needed at workplaces. 
Many of these apprentices are very young people, often they’re in their first workplace, certainly on a permanent sort of level, a full time level, and we need to do more for them. 
And as I stated, reforming the support positions that we have in place because we think we can improve on that. 
But I want to end on a positive note. 
Overall, there are more electricians in training right now than ever before. More than 41,000. This includes the highest number of women electricians on record, and we will need them.
The introduction of the Australian Skills Guarantee next year will mean industry will have to start planning to meet apprenticeship targets. 
We have a very significant challenge, we have a great employment and economic opportunity ahead of us in delivering the skilled workforce of the future, and ensuring that the workforce is highly skilled, inclusive and diverse. 
We're off to a great start but we have to sustain this effort over the long term. 
So, I'm looking forward to the engagement I have with people in this auditorium, with people beyond, talking about what we need to do, what solutions there are to transform a sector of our economy that is critical to every other sector. 
If we don't get this right, we will not realise our initiatives environmentally, and we will not take up the opportunities economically. 
And so we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we're on the right track.
Thanks very much.