ABC RADIO NATIONAL WITH CASSIE MCCULLAGH
MONDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER 2023
Topics: Employment White Paper, VET and TAFE requirements, Skill shortages.
CASSIE MCCULLAGH, HOST: Well, almost 30 years on, a Labor government has released a new Employment White Paper in a bid to put full employment at the heart of Australia's policy frameworks and institutions. Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Good afternoon to you.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good afternoon, Cassie.
MCCULLAGH: Now, this White Paper says the current definition of full employment is too narrow. What do you want the new definition to capture, exactly?
O'CONNOR: Well, we want to ensure that people who want to get a job can find one. We want people to have the skills that they need in a changing labour market, so we need to deliver the skills to those workers and ultimately to those businesses and to the economy. And we shouldn't be making assumptions about what level of unemployment needs to be to just mitigate against rising inflation. We should be doing our very best to get the optimum amount of Australians able to work.
MCCULLAGH: And so, with a new definition, will you have a clear target for what unemployment should look like?
O'CONNOR: Well, at the moment, we've had a very low rate of unemployment. It's been an unemployment rate with a three in front of it for quite some time. That's a very good thing, if we can ensure that people looking for work, can find work, if they can have meaningful lives and have secure employment, then that's what we should be looking to achieve. And my job, if you like, is to make sure that I'm working to supply the opportunities to acquire skills in an ever-changing labour market. For example, one of the reasons why people find themselves locked out of the labour market is they don't have the skills that are in demand today or tomorrow.
So, we need to do better at, firstly, anticipating the changing nature of the labour market and supply the skills in order to supply that demand. And that's why, of course, we've embarked on 180,000 fee-free TAFE places that we've exceeded to 215,000 so far, and we've got a further 300,000 to commence next year.
MCCULLAGH: Yeah, I heard the extraordinary statistic today. It might have even been you who quoted it; that nine out of ten of today's jobs require post-high school training or education.
O'CONNOR: That's right. So, again, the labour market is getting more advanced. The requirements for people to undertake work involve now nine out of every ten jobs requiring either a university degree or a TAFE or VET course accreditation. And therefore, we need to make sure we're providing opportunities. And that's why fee-free TAFE opens up access to courses in areas of demand. But today was also about not just supplying the courses that we have been doing to some good success, it's also about reforming the tertiary sectors, in my case, the TAFE sector so it is fit for purpose, it's responsive to the changing nature of the labour market, it's supplying the skills that businesses are crying out for and workers need. And that includes higher apprenticeships at diploma, advanced diploma level. We need to do more of that, and we also need, Cassie, to bring together, more effectively, universities and TAFEs working collaboratively.
Because what we're finding is this idea of delineating work between conceptual knowledge and technical skills is an anathema, or it's certainly outdated. It's not always the case for large parts of our economy, and increasingly, you'll find there'll be a requirement to have a combination of both of those things, namely conceptual knowledge and technical skills.
MCCULLAGH: Well, it's a tricky task, isn't it? Because we know that a lot of the vocational training facilities around the country have been stripped out over recent decades. Meanwhile, the university sector is plumped up by international money coming in. These are huge changes you're talking about.
O'CONNOR: Yeah, look, there's international revenue coming in, in the form of international students into the VET sector too, because overseas students both enrol into universities and into the VET sector. So, that's certainly an important stream of revenue, but it's also a very significant way that we engage with countries in the region. So, there's great benefits there that flow from that engagement. But the White Paper today really outlined the need for us to deliver to a 21st century economy and labour market. What's clear, best international practice is that we do need to be bringing together the tertiary sectors, universities, TAFE, working closer and working with industry.
So, for example, the changes that are occurring in the labour market today are much faster than they were even ten years ago. And therefore, if we don't have an education and training sector that's responsive to the changing needs that are moving quickly in the labour market, then we will not be able to supply the workforce that is required. And we're really in a race, you know, having the most knowledgeable and skilled workforce is one of the ways in which you maintain or increase your standard of living and have a strong and good society. And so there's many reasons why we need to do this. And Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer, has brought together, if you like, his colleagues, and we've all contributed to the outcomes of the White Paper that was announced today.
MCCULLAGH: Yeah, it's a complex, cross-departmental undertaking that you're talking about, but you did identify these three sectors. And for people who are listening, who really want to know what their work future might look like, this is the big key. It's the energy sector, the digital economy, but also the care and support sector that you're targeting first and hardest. So, what would that look like?
You're going to open up courses at TAFEs or whatever each institution is called around the country and also working with universities to feed into those. How's that going to work?
O'CONNOR: Well, firstly, the announcement at the Jobs and Skills Summit last year was to deliver fee-free places in skill-shortage areas. So, we don't just supply courses and remove cost barriers by removing fees. We do so in areas where we know there is existing and emerging demand in the labour market. We're adding a further 300,000 fee-free TAFE and VET places for 2024. And yes, you're right, the White Paper talks about three sectors of the economy, the digital economy, care and support, and they're important, of course - the massive transformation underway in the energy sector.
There are other areas too, and some states will have other emphasis. For example, in South Australia, they'll be looking probably more focused on defence industry than perhaps other parts of the country. So, there's other sectors too. But can I just say, the things we need to do is work out what the demands are for supplying a pipeline of skills to the energy sector, which is undergoing enormous transformation. We need to work out what sort of skill set do workers need and how do you supply them. Do they go through an advanced apprenticeship? Do they take up a degree? Well, it's a combination of all those things. And how are we being advised by that? Well, we're making sure that universities and TAFEs working with industry are engaging with government about where we invest and how we deliver the skills.
You're right, there's a lot of work to be done, but if you're listening to industry, if you are engaged fully with universities - and I'm working very closely with Minister Clare - and you're working with TAFEs, you can, I think, get this right.
So, today was really foreshadowing the pathway to supply these skills. I've got a National Skills Agreement negotiation underway now with every state and territory government, which will deliver the changes for the VET sector. Minister Jason Clare has an Accord review, but he and I are working very closely because we have different vehicles, but we're working together in providing the skills that are needed and bringing universities and the VET sector closer together.
MCCULLAGH: Well, there's a lot in this, it's ambitious. I know that there's some sectors, such as the Australian Council of Social Services, who've said things today about needing clear guidelines on what employment and unemployment targets are, and also people working in the welfare and pensioners are keen to know what they can do. So, there's a lot in this, and we'll have to leave it there, but, a big move for people looking for employment and for changing the way the economy is shaped. Thanks very much for talking with us.
O'CONNOR: Thank you very much, Cassie. Appreciate the time.
MCCULLAGH: Brendan O'Connor is telling us about the Employment White Paper. Loads in it today, and I think we'll be hearing about it for quite some.