ABC NEWS AFTERNOON BRIEFING WITH GREG JENNETT
MONDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER 2023
Topics: Employment White Paper, National Skills Agreement, Remote work and work from home.
GREG JENNETT, HOST: Skills and training Minister, Brendan O'Connor was at that launch with the Treasurer and others. Nearly all aspects of the White Paper have something to do with job training. We spoke to Brendan O'Connor about a few elements, especially those that aim to modernise technical apprenticeships.
Brendan O'Connor, a big day in the jobs and skills portfolio with the publication of this Employment White Paper. Why don't we start with one initiative, relatively modest in your portfolio, an extra $41 million for six new TAFE Centres of Excellence.
Now this would, I guess, increase the skills of apprentices and the like. Can you give us examples of trade skills that lend themselves to degree-level qualifications, which I think is the goal here?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Firstly, thanks for having me on, Greg. The additional $42 million of investment is really adding to what is already a very significant allocation of investment under the National Skills Agreement that I'm currently negotiating with State and Territory governments to deliver from January 2024.
And what that is about is to reform the VET sector with TAFE at its centre in a way that is fit for purpose, and that includes Centres of Excellence that will ensure the collaboration between universities and TAFE, but also a greater number of higher skill qualifications, such as degree apprenticeships.
Because what is happening to our economy, Greg, is that we are needing to supply skills in a different way, and in some cases we need occupations and trades and professions to have a combination of conceptual knowledge and technical skills.
And so, as you see overseas, if you look at best practice, you see what's happening, even in Australia where it is starting to happen, you are getting trades, accredited trades apprenticeships getting higher skills, and you're getting people that are going to university picking up technical skills, because that combination is actually in many cases more effective.
And where would I start with those areas? The energy sector, going through the massive transformation will require that. The care economy. Already there are diplomas and advanced diplomas in the VET sector because we need to build on the existing skill set for what has been the traditional job roles.
So you are seeing the skilling and upskilling and reskilling happening, and that's why we're looking to deliver that, and the White Paper has not only validated that, but it added investment to it.
JENNETT: I think this interconnection between universities and TAFEs is, as you identified here with us today, Brendan O'Connor, a centrepiece of your reform agenda. And yet, the White Paper notes that only 12 per cent of domestic undergraduates who commence a course do so by counting qualifications that they've obtained at TAFE. How high do you envisage that number? How high do you want that number to grow?
O'CONNOR: Well, it's hard to measure precisely exactly what proportion of people should be working across two tertiary sectors. What we do know is this: that existing and future jobs will increasingly require conceptual knowledge and technical skills.
What we do know, and we're engaging with industry, with universities, obviously with Jason Clare through the Accord Review, and TAFEs, to make sure that we get this right. So, it ultimately is about a collaboration; understanding what industry needs, ensuring that education and training providers at the tertiary level supply those skills, and if that means greater collaboration, which it does, between the two tertiary sectors, then that's what we must do.
We also need to anticipate more precisely, Greg, the changing nature of the economy, so when we invest in education and training and there's a significant lag between investment and outcomes, we do so understanding what are the emerging areas of demand in the labour market and our economy, and that's why we created Jobs and Skills Australia, and have those 10 industry Jobs and Skills Councils, so we are better informed, both as a government, but also industry's better informed to understand what is happening to our labour market and what is needed, and that goes to what sort of courses, do we need the combination of VET and university, do we need to have greater collaboration? That is clear we do, but we'll have to work with industry to make sure we've prioritised the areas of demand.
But I would say it's going to continue to grow significantly. In some countries it's up to 40 per cent of the combination of two elements that we have historically delineated in two separate sort of education providers. Now that's something, that's no longer acceptable for a modern economy.
JENNETT: It would be a fascinating development to see it grow that high. Let's keep an eye on that. On some broader trends in the White Paper, Brendan O'Connor, remote work and work from home, the paper notes that this is on the rise, as you would expect, after the pandemic. Do you see that becoming a permanent feature, and one that government policy might encourage in some way?
O'CONNOR: I think there are certain professions and occupations that lend itself to more remote work or not working always at the workplace, and there's no doubt that the pandemic accelerated that development, but it was happening even before the global pandemic, that where people could choose to work in a place other than a workplace, that was happening.
I do note too that some companies, global companies have concluded that the best way to hold on to the brightest and best professionals and workers is to offer a combination of working from home and working in a workplace.
Now, of course, not every occupation lends itself to that, or profession, for that matter, as you know, there are some where physical attendance is required, but there is no doubt a growing trend because of the technological capability for us to do more work from somewhere other than a workplace, and I think that is still evolving. There is no doubt because of the pandemic, it accelerated, there's been some readjustment, but I think it's going to be with us, and I'm sure it's always going to be one of the options available to workers and to businesses about how they look at their mix of workers and where they're located. And there are savings to be made as well, you know, when you actually reduce the size of your workplaces, for example.
JENNETT: Yeah, that might also connect in with another observation in the broad on trends in the workforce within the Paper, labour mobility interstate, so across State borders, is at historically low levels in the future. Maybe that's connected to remote work using the Internet these days. I'm not sure, but is that something that needs to change?
O'CONNOR: Well, I have to say, as a country we're not a very mobile labour market. We don't tend to get up and leave our local communities and go elsewhere as often, for example, as they do in the United States. So, we are not a country that has a very high mobility rate.
But I think because of technological changes there will be a lot of things that you'll be able to do remotely, and not only participating in the labour market, but even learning itself is done more often online than it used to be.
And so, the use of technology, whether it's delivering education and training, whether it's delivering on employment matters, is here to stay. The extent to which it's going to be part of the mix of the labour market I think is obviously something that we won't precisely understand, but we do know it's going to be a significant feature of our labour market from here on in.
And we need to make sure that works, because you know, there are other potential downsides to that, including the isolation that someone might feel if they were not ever socialising in a workplace. So, there are a lot of things that need to be contemplated for policymakers and for employers and unions, and others, about that sort of behaviour, that change of behaviour of a professional tradesperson or a worker generally.
JENNETT: Yeah, and a lot of refined work still needs to go on since the publication of this White Paper, I guess. Finally, Brendan O'Connor, as a very experienced Minister in your own right, it won't have escaped your attention today that Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, has stood aside pending an expedited investigation.
In your experience, is it common for departmental secretaries to communicate with political operatives in the way that Mr. Pezzullo appears to have?
O'CONNOR: Look, I've only seen the reports. Obviously, it's not my area of responsibility. I do understand this though, Greg, that the Minister for Home Affairs, as she made clear at the press conference earlier, has asked the Secretary to stand aside, and she's referred the matter to the Public Service Commissioner, which is absolutely appropriate, and there should be some inquiry.
I mean at the moment these are reports and allegations. They need to be looked at properly before I predicate any answer on the assumption that they are accurate. So, I think I'll await the inquiry, the government will await the inquiry, and the Minister for Home Affairs has done absolutely the right thing in that regard.
JENNETT: All right. Fair enough. We won't press any further. It sounds like that expedited inquiry might come through before too long. Brendan O'Connor, on a hectic day for you and other ministers there in Adelaide, we appreciate you setting aside 10 minutes or so for us. Thanks for joining us again.
O'CONNOR: Not at all, Greg.