Release type: Speech


Speech - National Skills Week Launch


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


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past, and present.

I am proud to be part of a government that will give every Australian the opportunity to vote for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people later this year, the creation of a Voice.

I extend that welcome to Ngunnawal Elder Richard Allan and any other First Nations colleagues here today.

We’re here this morning to launch National Skills Week.

A week that celebrates apprentices, trainees, students and the skills sector.

I’m grateful to SkillsOne, particularly Brian Wexham, for organising this event, and for their work showcasing Australia’s skills sector. 

To Minister Chris Steel, who has been a pleasure to work with and is a great representative of the ACT.

I also like to acknowledge Professor Peter Dawkins, Liam O’Brien from the ACTU, and CEO of ACCI Andrew McKellar. 

Welcome to Old Parliament House.

A very appropriate setting for this breakfast. 

It was in this building about 50 years ago, the Whitlam Government sought to significantly widen educational opportunities for all Australians, and reform post school training. 

Its focus on increasing participation in education, both at the school and at the tertiary level, represented a dramatic social and cultural shift.

That government improved our tertiary education sectors, established national training and removed cost barriers for students.

For TAFE, this period involved significant change and that continued under the Hawke-Keating Governments.

Under Hawke the TAFE offerings became more closely aligned to the economy and labour market, and the introduction of competency-based training redefined TAFE teaching and learning.

And just like those Governments the Albanese Government is materially reforming our VET sector.

We’re rebuilding and modernising.

We’re making sure the sector is stronger, our economy more resilient and more Australians get the opportunity to access well paid and secure jobs, now and in the future.

It’s time that we inform and inspire people of all ages to explore the opportunities of education and training.

And what better vehicle to do this than through this year’s National Skills Week, which I’m so pleased to be able to officially launch here today.

Across Australia, the labour market skill shortages are as deep as they are wide.

The 2022 Skills Priority list revealed the number of occupations suffering skills shortages almost doubled, jumping from 153 occupations in 2021 to 286.

The trades are being hit hard.

The latest vacancy figures for June 2023 tells the story.

We need close to 5,000 motor mechanics, more than 3,000 electricians and nearly 4,000 Metal Fitter and Machinists.

And in the vital care sector there are around 9,000 vacancies. 

Looking at the top 20 occupations in demand nationally, almost half have direct VET pathways - including six occupations within the top 10.

These job vacancies mean communities can’t access the services they need.

A family might not be able to access the level of home care they need for one of their loved one who needs it.

A young couple trying to build their first home might be shut out because of a lack of builders.

Knowledge acquisition, education and training is a big part of the answer to the skills shortage question.

And it connects people to meaningful livelihoods.

Hannah Holford, for example, worked as a volunteer from year nine, completing a Cert III in Individual Support through a school-based traineeship and was named Australian School-based Apprentice of the Year.

Since her apprenticeship ended, Hannah is embarking on further qualifications in nursing.

We need more people like Hannah caring for those who need it. 

I’d also like to recognise the employers – large and small - here today who demonstrate their deep commitment to investing their time and effort in training the workforce we need for the future.

But it’s just as important that our education and training pathways align with what these employers need.

After years of disengagement with states and territories, our government has restored this critical relationship.

Reforming and modernising vocational education and training to make it efficient, effective, and easy to navigate is a significant first step.

We can’t fix a skills shortage if our qualifications are not meeting industry needs.

And meeting those needs are vital. 

While some parts of the system are working well, VET is incredibly diverse.

What is true in one part of the sector is not necessarily the case in other parts.

We’ve inherited a system that’s afflicted with thousands of unit duplications, where students are having to relearn things they’ve already been taught.

Transferable skills are not always being properly recognised and students undertake unnecessary additional training.

We’ve have identified more than 5000 units of competency that contain at least 70 per cent of the same material taught in other units.

This current model is not fit for the modern economy, where changing jobs and careers and life long learning has become the norm.

The qualifications system is also often criticised as being overly specific.

For example, there are 18 units of competency related to sales.

Some as specific as selling sausages.

I’m no expert, but I would hazard a guess that the skills needed to sell a sausage would not be that different to those needed to sell a lamb chop.

While I understand there are necessary nuances in sector specific skill sets, there is a way we can give people more freedom and flexibility to transfer their skills without undertaking repetitive training. 

Today I can announce that we are establishing a VET Qualifications Reform Design Group to be chaired by Craig Robertson – CEO of the Victorian Skills Authority.

Its role will be to help deliver simpler more responsive system.

And the result will be a simpler, more responsive system that strikes the right balance between industry skill needs, while recognising transferable skills.

This will support people to continually build their skillset through their working lives through multiple jobs and sectors.

This is the first step in a significant body of work to deliver on our reform ambition.

It builds on the creation of Jobs and Skills Councils – a network of industry led organisations that will bring together employers and unions to work in partnership with governments and the education and training sectors.

As Minister, I’m proud to say we’re making one of the most significant investments in the delivery of training in recent history. And we have hit the ground running.

This year, in partnership with the States and Territories, we’ve delivered 180,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places.

You may be working alongside a trainee or apprentice who’s getting their start through Fee-Free TAFE.

And next year, we’re building on that.

While the detail still needs to be worked through, the Commonwealth will invest more than $400 million to provide a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE places.

We expanded the Australian Apprenticeship Priority List from 77 to 111 earlier this year, meaning more apprentices can access direct payments of up to $5,000.

Just yesterday we passed legislation expanding our interest-free trade support loans to non-trade apprentices, such as those in the care economy, for the very first time.

This means approximately 35,000 additional apprentices and trainees in areas of skills shortage will become eligible for important cost-of-living support.

Or, up to $10,000 under the New Energy Apprenticeship program.

Last week, I met two New Energy Apprentices working on a residential site in Canberra.

Nick and Max were installing solar panels on the roof of a home which they told me could produce 10 k/w, enough to power a home with just 3 hours of sunlight a day.

Nick told me he wanted to study engineering, but before that wanted to get practical trade experience.

This is such a great mindset. 

To solve the challenges of today, and the challenges of the future – our VET sector and higher education sector needs to collaborate.

And collaboration is key.  

Finally, I note that the theme of this National Skills week is “What Are You Looking For?” 

That’s a very good question.

Because in many cases it will be found in vocational education and training.

VET is a first-class option.

It is one half of Australia’s outstanding tertiary education sector.

Let’s celebrate the contribution that Australia’s apprentices, trainees and TAFE students make to our society.

I hope you have a wonderful National Skills Week.

Thank you.