FRIDAY, 25 AUGUST 2023
Topics: Ministerial Council of Skills Ministers, National Skills Agreement, Fee-Free TAFE and VET places, Skilled Migration.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: I’m here today in Western Australia to convene another Ministerial Council of Skills Ministers to look at what we can do to reform the VET sector to ensure we supply skills to the labour market, to students and workers who need skills that are in demand, to businesses who are crying out for skills that exist now that are in shortage now, and indeed skills that will emerge to be in greater demand over the coming years.
Today we’re negotiating a National Skills Agreement. It’s a five year agreement for the VET sector providing certainty not just for the VET sector, not just for TAFEs, but for industry. Along the way, we’re also negotiating a further 300,000 fee free TAFE and VET places starting next year. That’s a huge commitment to ensuring we remove cost barriers for students to access courses in areas of demand. I’m very happy to say the efforts to date on the announcement of the 180,000 fee free VET and TAFE places has been a success. We’ve exhausted that initiative. The enrolees have filled the courses across the country and that means we are really targeting areas of demand, targeting areas that exist now, but also anticipating the emerging demands that are arising in our labour market. That’s why we established Jobs and Skills Australia.
But today it is a focus on not only ensuring we have the skills for today but we reform the sector so it’s fit for purpose for the future. We have many challenges, whether it’s the transformation of the energy sector, supplying skills and labour to the care economy, IT, wherever you look. There are challenges in Western Australia and across the country. And we believe these discussions leading to the implementation of policies, including investment in education training, is critical to our economy, to our workforce, and to businesses crying out for skills in demand. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Why was the cut to WA’s allocation of the skills nominated migrant program made in the first place?
O’CONNOR: The Albanese Government upon election found that there were 960,000 visa applications that had not been processed – nearly a million visas that had not been processed. And we got about ensuring very quickly that we expedited the acceleration of those visas. So, as a result of that, we’ve had more than 400,000 visas approved in that period. We added an extra almost 400 staff, invested more than $40 million to make sure that we accelerated the visa process. What that has meant is there’s a huge proportion of people now with visas as a result of our efforts, and that obviously is being taken into account by the federal government.
But as I’ve made clear and I’ve made clear to Minister McGurk, the federal government is very happy to talk to the Western Australian Government about this matter. But it is really making sure that we get these settings right. Can I say it is not all about skilled migration. Some industry would like to think that all we should be doing is forgetting our own local workforce and focusing only on skilled migration. As a former Immigration Minister, I can assure you it is not acceptable that we would not be training and educating our own workforce, the students that are entering the labour market, existing workers who need new skills. It is not a binary choice. It is a combination of education and training and skilled migration pathways. We need to get those settings right.
Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles, the two ministers who have been reforming skilled migration, will continue to talk to the state and territory governments and industry about what is needed, but today the focus, quite rightly, is on how do we invest in our workforce in our students to ensure that we’re not overly reliant on the supply of temporary skilled visa applicants. In fact, the previous federal government was addicted to temporary skilled visas to the point where they were displacing local workers, they were actually not fit for purpose to the extent that people didn’t feel a sense of belonging.
So, the Albanese Government is looking to shift skilled migration to a greater proportion of permanent skilled migration. That’s a good thing and that’s been welcomed by employers. And we’ll continue to work with each sector to make sure that the skilled migration supplements the education and training investments we make in our local workforce and our students.
JOURNALIST: So, those positions in WA in particular are vacant now. I think training people up is not going to fill those places and WA – last year it applied for 10,000 it got 8,000. It got 2,000 this year. So, it kind of got 10,000 over two years.
O’CONNOR: It has to be seen against the backdrop of the acceleration of the processing that occurred. We not only inherited over a trillion dollars of public debt; we also inherited 960,000 applications that were stuck in the system and in 14 months we’ve reduced that to below 600,000. So, that is a remarkable acceleration of visas. Those visas are now in the system and they’re available and providing opportunities for employers – that includes state and territory governments – to have that supply. So, I think you need to see it in that context.
But as I’ve made clear, Minister Giles is, I think, talking to the Western Australian Government on Monday. I’m back here on Monday. We’ve got cabinet here. I’m looking forward to talking to industry about those challenges. But that’s the context in which you have to see it. And in terms of today – and again I’m just making the very clear point – it is wrong for us to be relying on skilled migration alone. We need to be doing better. One of the reasons why we found ourselves exposed during a pandemic is we have not been providing strategic investment in education and training, whether that’s university degrees or whether that’s TAFE courses. We have found ourselves exposed. We can’t find ourselves in that position again.
When we talk about supply chains and being an overly reliant country on supply chains, we’re not just talking about goods and services. We’re talking about the supply of skills and labour. That’s why we need to be more self reliant. We need to be far better at ensuring that our own workforces have the skills that are in demand today and tomorrow. Yes skilled migration will supplement that, but today’s meeting is about the investment in the VET sector. And we’ll have further conversations with the Western Australian Government about that.
JOURNALIST: Were any of the states’ Premiers consulted before this decision to cut was made?
O’CONNOR: I understand the matter was subject to discussions at National Cabinet, which is something that is between Premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister, and obviously conversations are made between counterpart ministers. I’m not the minister responsible for immigration or these matters. I can only say to you that we understand we need to supply skills to the labour market. We’re doing so by making sure we review skilled migration pathways so they’re more responsive to the precise needs of our economy. And what I’m doing as the Minister for Skills and Training is working with my counterparts, including Minister McGurk, to ensure the VET sector is fit for purpose and supplies the skills of the Australian workforce to industry. And I think that’s understandable at a time where we have one of the tightest labour markets and one of the greatest skill shortages across our economy wherever you look, whether it’s the trades, professions, whichever sector you point to.
We need to make sure we’re much better at supplying the skills coming out of universities and coming out of TAFEs, our VET sector generally. That’s what we’re discussing today and there will be further discussions no doubt between the two Governments in relation to the allocation of visa holders, but today our focus is on skills and training and the VET sector.
JOURNALIST: How many locally skilled people are you expecting to bring into the workforce over the next financial year?
O’CONNOR: Well, that’s something you might want to direct to the Western Australian Government. But I can say this: that the 180,000 fee-free VET and TAFE places was an absolute success. Announced less than a year ago at the Jobs and Skills Summit. We then negotiated eight agreements with six State and two Territory Governments. And those places have been effectively exhausted. So, it shows that if you remove cost barriers to courses that are providing skills in demand, if you actually make it easier for students to enrol in such courses, then you get very strong interest. And that’s really important, because if they’re acquiring skills in demand, they’ll fill the vacancies that exist in the labour market. As for the exact numbers, it’s something you might want to put to the WA Government. But that’s the additional investment that was made as a result of that decision coming out of the Jobs and Skills Summit.
And we can do more and that’s why I’m saying the Commonwealth wants to increase the fee free TAFE places to an extra 300,000 starting next year. That will be something that I believe will be a success off the back of what’s already happened. So, if that initiative takes effect, we will be looking at nearly half a million courses in the VET sector where the fees have been removed and they’ll be in areas of demand. That will help the WA sector – that will help Western Australia. It will help all other states and territories and it will help the country as a whole.
JOURNALIST: Can you explain why speeding up the visa processing, how that has played into cutting our skilled nominated migrants?
O’CONNOR: I’m not across the issues around the matter because it’s not something I’m directly engaged with. I’m not responsible for it as a minister. I’m just saying to you that what we’ve inherited was an unbelievable situation in that there was going to be a million visas that were not processed upon our election, which is unprecedented in this country’s history. And we set about accelerating the process so that people could actually continue to stay in the country, become permanent residents, whatever their application was.
So, that has taken an enormous amount of work by the Department of Home Affairs and the two ministers directly involved, particularly Minister Giles, who’s focused on that issue. And that provides, obviously, the supply of skills that we need when people are making applications.
When you don’t – when people are sitting indefinitely for years, having sought a permanent residency application, they leave. They go back to the country from where they’ve come or they go to another country that’s offering permanent residency. That’s a complete and utter failure of the previous government we’ve had to fix up. As I say, we’ll happily talk to the WA Government next week. I understand Minister Giles is doing so. But we’re working through the complete failure of the previous government to expedite or just to normally process applications as has been the case for many a year. It’s really – it was a shock to us, the scale of the visas that were not processed. It’s never happened before and it’s something we’ve been attending to.
JOURNALIST: So, you support the cut to the skilled immigration?
O’CONNOR: I said to you that I’m not engaged with the government on that matter. We are willing to talk to them about that and my focus – and I think people in Western Australia care about this – is training Western Australians in areas of demand. I think the idea that we should just be focusing on skilled migration and forget local people when today’s council is only about investing in education and training for local students and workers, is unfortunate., I know Western Australians would hope that their governments are focusing on educating and training workers who need new skills, students who are entering the labour market.
And there’s some great news on that front, because we’re negotiating and looking to settle a five-year National Skills Agreement investing billions of dollars in areas of demand and on top of that we’re adding to the successful initiative of 180,000 fee-free VET and TAFE places with a further 300,000 places starting next year. That’s a very important initiative. That’s why I’m here today. And you might have to take up some of these more specific questions on that matter to which you referred to the minister responsible.
JOURNALIST: Is it a deeper philosophical issue? I mean, some of us remember during the mining boom we didn’t have enough workers to serve the mining boom and maybe it’s just a fact that not enough Australians want to get into mining, into the sciences or into construction. We have to bring them in from overseas.
O’CONNOR: Of course, we need to have skilled migration, and I say that as someone who’s a migrant. This country is built on the back of migration. We’re a proud immigration country and we’ll always require a skilled migration pathway, and that’s a great thing. Our story, our modern story, is about migration. The first time I came to Fremantle was as a child as part of a migrant family, and it’s a great story and it’s part of the Australian story. But also, we need to ensure that we actually supply the skills by training local people as well. It’s a combination – it’s not one or the other.
As for the peaks and troughs of the economy if we’ve got a more responsive skilled migration pathway, if we’ve got more responsive education and training sectors, it means they anticipate the demands in the economy more effectively and we, therefore, can invest in education where there will be an emerging demand and we can ensure that we get the skilled migrants in the areas existing in emerging demand more effectively.
For example, if we had anticipated the mining boom today, then we should be obviously investing in education and training and skilled migration in that sector so we don’t find ourselves short or having to backfill the jobs that have left other sectors to go into the mining sector. So, we can do these things better and that’s what the discussions today are about.
JOURNALIST: Are you at all concerned about the immediate impacts it could have on WA given the skilled workers shortages?
O’CONNOR: We’re always concerned about any adverse impacts to any part of Australia and so our job is to make sure that we provide skills that are in demand, and we do that in two fundamental ways – probably three ways. We obviously look to invest in areas of education and training where there are skills shortages. We do have skilled migration pathways to respond to the immediate needs. And also we start examining the participation of people so that Australians who have been either locked out of the labour market, like people with disabilities, get a go. For example, our investment in child care was to improve the opportunities for women to make choices as to whether they wanted to return to the labour market quicker because they can be assured that they can afford child care. And I think those sort of policy decisions open up opportunities of employment, increase employment participation for women, provide opportunities for people who have been locked out of the labour market historically and skilled migration is also part of that. And we do have people here who want to work who have not been able to work and can work. We should also be exploring those avenues as well and that’s what we’re doing.
JOURNALIST: Thank you.