Topics: Fee-Free TAFE and VET places; Skills shortage; New Energy Apprentices; Investment in skills training, The Voice referendum.
LORETTA RYAN, HOST: Now, if you're an air-conditioning or a refrigeration mechanic, or an agricultural technician, or maybe a motor mechanic, Queensland needs you and needs more of you.
CRAIG ZONCA, HOST: Yeah, well, there is a skills shortage, full stop. About a third of every job advertised in those trades is here in the Sunshine State, and on the National Skills Commission website, they're all marked with a big red S, standing for a shortage.
RYAN: Yeah, the Australian Government is trying to entice more people into those trades with a big cost-of-living cheque, and it turns out Queensland apprentices are taking it up.
ZONCA: The Federal Minister for Skills and Training is Brendan O'Connor. He's in Brisbane this morning: Minister, good morning to you.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good morning, Craig and Loretta.
ZONCA: In terms of those numbers, have you got some stats, some data you can give us?
O'CONNOR: We've really wanted to make sure that people enrol in courses in demand. So, we struck an agreement across the country, including, of course, with the Queensland Government, to have 180,000 additional Fee-Free TAFE and VET places in areas of demand. The 37,000 allocated for Queensland has been close to filled, and that is a very fast take-up rate of enrolments, which means that people are getting into courses in areas of demand like those occupations you've just referred to.
ZONCA: And many others are still in demand right now.
O'CONNOR: When we entered Government last year, the occupation list had nearly doubled from 153 to 286 occupations. You've seen the top 20 here in Queensland, and it cuts across the entire labour market and economy.
Registered nurses, retail managers, mechanics, and the energy opportunities because of the transformation in that sector, like the jobs that will be available, these clean, green, highly technical well-paid secure jobs – it's an excellent opportunity for people to get into that sector as well.
ZONCA: So, you've got $10,000 on offer.
O'CONNOR: That's right.
ZONCA: Who is eligible to access that money?
O'CONNOR: Well, for those that are in the occupations that fit into the new energy areas. So, all of the electrical trades areas, much of the mechanical areas that go to energy.
But even things like horticulture and agriculture if it's involved in renewable energy. So, it's both technical skills in terms of electrical arrangements and other areas incidental to the energy sector. So, you can go onto the Federal Department of Employment's website. You can see the occupations that fit within that new energy apprenticeship area. The support for these apprentices is $10,000, an increase on the traditional investment to support energy apprenticeships.
ZONCA: Is that $10,000 to the apprentices or the employer?
O'CONNOR: Some money goes to the employer, but the $10,000 is 100 per cent for the energy apprentice. So, we must encourage employers and provide support, particularly for people with relatively low wages with cost-of-living pressures.
Removing the fees for courses and providing support for apprentices is really about encouraging people to acquire skills in areas of demand and deal with these difficult cost-of-living pressures.
RYAN: So that's a great start for them. What about as a career? How are the wages then for those apprentices?
O'CONNOR: That's an excellent point. We've encouraged people and removed cost barriers to enter areas of demand because we know the likelihood of getting jobs in those courses - in those areas - where they're acquiring those skills is very good.
We also know there are some very well-paid, secure jobs in the energy sector, and the sector is growing significantly because of the transformation as we move to net zero by 2050. It is an essential sector of our economy, supports other sectors, and is at a time of transformation.
These skills are in high demand and technically challenging, so the wages and conditions are very good, and the career prospect for someone that would enter into this sector with these new skills is also excellent. So, it ticks all the boxes for people who want to have a promising trade career.
ZONCA: I've been in radio for about 20 years, Minister, and it feels like we've been talking about skill shortages for 20 years. Has enough been done, say, over the past decade?
O'CONNOR: Well, more can be done, and the pandemic exposed some of our problems regarding the supply of skills. There are skilled migration pathways, still, the Federal Government, the Albanese Government, is focussing on education and training here as the predominant pipeline of skills for the economy. What we've done, what was important, is we had the Jobs and Skills Summit just after the federal election last year, which bought together state and territory governments, employers, unions, universities, and the VET sector. We talked about what we needed to do and what strategic investment we needed to make in education and training in the areas of demand in our economy today. Still, we're also anticipating the changing nature of the economy so we know where to invest for the jobs of the future.
And we've created Jobs and Skills Australia, which is a body that can map the economy as it is now but also anticipate the changes, so when we're investing, when we're encouraging people to acquire knowledge and skills, we are doing so with the understanding of where the areas of emerging demand will be so when they get that TAFE course or get a university degree, they're getting the knowledge and skills in the areas that are needed for our labour market.
RYAN: And how much of that is being told to students currently at school?
O'CONNOR: We need to do more of that. We must ensure that our career advice at the student level is important. Jason Clare, the Education Minister, is working with state education ministers about being better at that. And I'm working with skills ministers. I'm meeting Queensland Skills Minister Di Farmer later today.
I've been negotiating with the eight other governments. We have a five-year National Skills Agreement commencing January next year, and we're negotiating that now. That's all about where we need to invest in the VET sector for areas of demand. You've seen that shortage list in Queensland. It's a shortage of mechanics and plumbers, retail managers, and physiotherapists, so it really is across the economy.
We do have to be very strategic, and it's taxpayers' dollars that are investing in these areas along with industry, and it is a waste if we're not investing in areas of demand.
ZONCA: It's just gone half past 7. We'll cross to the newsroom in a moment; the Federal Skills and Training Minister, Brendan O'Connor, with you this morning here on ABC Radio Brisbane.
Minister, to a different subject for a moment that is The Voice referendum. Yes, and no campaigns have had to finalise their essays.
That's gone to the AEC. It will be distributed to Australians before they go to a vote. What will be your message to Queenslanders over the next few months?
O'CONNOR: Look, it is handed over now to the Australian people, and to people listening, we would say that it's an opportunity for us to recognise First Nations People in our Constitution and also provide a capacity for us to listen to First Nations People about some of the real problems across the country when it comes to First Nations People.
Showing respect, recognition, and listening is important. Listening is a key part when you talk about developing policies to ensure they work for people, whoever they are.
One of the reasons I'm here today is to talk to you about these issues because we've listened to what is needed in industry to provide skills. So, too, with First Nations People, we believe in establishing the capacity to listen and respond and improve our policies because what's clear when you look at the relative position of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, you see that there is a gap that shouldn't exist and one of the failings we've had in the past is we've sought to make decisions without engaging genuinely with people affected by those policies.
The Voice provides that opportunity, and I hope that Queenslanders and Australians across the country would agree.
ZONCA: Well, it will be up for debate over the next few months before we go to a referendum date, which we still don't have. Any inside word there, Brendan O'Connor?
O'CONNOR: No, it's going to be in the last quarter of the year, and we're keen for it to be a respectful discussion across the country by Australians.
ZONCA: Thanks so much for your time this morning.
O'CONNOR: Not at all.