Release type: Transcript


Transcript - Press Conference, Melbourne


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

FRIDAY, 30 JUNE 2023

Topics: Skills and Workforce Ministerial Council Meeting; Fee-Free TAFE and VET.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Thanks for coming. I just wanted to make some brief opening remarks and then happy to take any questions.
Today is the sixth Ministerial Council this year, bringing together Skills Ministers from every State and Territory Government, along with the Commonwealth, to ensure that we respond to the skills shortages across our economy.
Upon election, we realised we had a very significant skills shortage across all sectors of the economy, a very tight labour market, and whether it be the professions, the trades, or industry generally, we had shortages. The occupation shortage list, in one year, nearly doubled from 153 occupations on that shortage list to 286. The OECD tagged Australia as having the second highest labour shortage amongst OECD countries. And for that reason, the Albanese Government responded by firstly convening the Jobs and Skills summit, bring together employers and unions, civil society, State and Territory Governments to work on those critical national challenges that we all confront and must work together upon. That included of course arising out of that summit, an announcement to ensure there would be 180,000 additional Fee-Free TAFE and VET places for 2023.
What followed from that decision was eight separate agreements with the Federal Government and each State and Territory Government to make sure that we provided Fee-Free TAFE and VET places in areas of skill shortage, so that we could supply the skills much needed in our economy. It’s absolutely vital for workers to have skills that are in demand, critical for businesses crying out for skilled workers, and also critical to our economy. And for that reason, I'm very happy to report that there's been very good progress, in excess of 150,000 of those 180,000 Fee-Free VET and TAFE places have been filled. And these are areas as I say, of skill shortage - 30% up in enrolees in regional Australia, 60% of the enrolees are women. And they are in courses, where we do need a supply of skills. And so that's been a very good result to date.
And for that reason, we want to move forward with State and Territory Governments to do more, and to have a five-year National Skills Agreement in place from the first of January next year, because there's still a lot of work to be done. If we're going to ensure that we transform the energy sector and supply the skills needed in that very significant transformation that's needed, moving to renewables, we will need a very significant supply of skills to that sector. If we're going to provide the labour and skills required for the care economy. Again, we really do need to be investing in education and training to supply skilled workers in that critical sector where the demand of which is growing each and every year. If we're going to make sure that we deliver on our sovereign capability to realise our ambition under the AUKUS arrangement, we do need to have a higher education sector, and a VET sector that is capable of providing the skills that are needed for our defence industry.
So, wherever you look, there will be challenges. But there are great opportunities too, for workers to have skills, for employers to become more productive and efficient with a more knowledgeable and trained workforce. And so too for our economy. It's axiomatic that if you have a more knowledgeable and skilful labour market and workforce, you have a more efficient and productive economy, which leads to good dividends for businesses and workers alike. So, it's good for the country, it's good for employers, it's good for workers, and we need to continue in that vein for that reason.
Today's sixth meeting of the Skills Ministers will talk about the National Skills Agreement, how to make sure we resolve some of the matters that are still outstanding. We're looking to focus more on Centres of Excellence, TAFE led, bringing together the two tertiary sectors to work more collaboratively so that we do ensure that we're training people, educating people in the way that is needed for a modern economy. And for that reason, we will see greater collaboration between the two tertiary sectors, if we have this proposal realised, namely the Centres of Excellence, which we are negotiating as I speak. And that's something that I think is very much well regarded by all governments, we just need to obviously work significantly on the detail there.
There is going to be a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places starting from January 1, 2024. And that's on the back of, of course, a very successful investment this year. We believe that removing cost barriers in courses where they're required to supply labour and skills in the labour market has been both very helpful for many students, and many workers. But it's also encouraged them to acquire skills that are in demand. So, it's critical for our businesses and our economy, and we believe we can continue that by having a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places from 2024.
So, there's a lot of work to be done. There's been good work so far, but we understand there is so much more to be done. If we're going to have a modern economy that has the skills and knowledge required for Australia to have a great standard of living, good quality of life and a very harmonious society, if we have good investment in our people, if people have a good standard of living. If we can confront and deal with the challenges ahead, then I think there's a lot in this for this country and that's why we're so passionate about getting this done. Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Thank you, Minister. Just a quick question about the Fee-Free courses for TAFE. Can you tell me a bit about how that's translating into real jobs?
O'CONNOR: Yes, well, the first thing is that people have to acquire the skills under those courses to realise jobs. But what we have done is, in discussions and negotiations with State and Territory Governments, we've identified the courses that will be providing the skills to fill the gaps in our labour market. So in other words, people are enrolling in aged care, they're enrolling in the trades, they're enrolling in health care generally, disability care, for example. They're enrolling in other courses across the economy. But we have identified the shortages, the gaps in our labour market, they're acquiring those skills. And therefore, their skills will be much needed by the labour market.
So, people are currently undertaking those courses, as you understand because it started this calendar year, but of course, coming out of those certificates. Some of them are 12 months duration, some are shorter, some are longer, they go for a couple of years or three years. But coming out of those courses with accreditation will mean that they know there are vacancies in the in the labour market and their chances of employment are obviously much greater as a result of identifying skill shortages, encouraging people to acquire those skills, and then of course, look to find a job in the labour market.
JOURNALIST: Thank you, and you mentioned the 300,000 places for next year. Will that be discussed today in terms of specifics, which courses there will be? If there'll be a change from this year?
O'CONNOR: Yes. Similarly, as we did with the 180,000 places, after the headline announcement, starting with the Prime Minister, Premiers, Chief Ministers, and then announced by myself we then engaged with each and every State and Territory to make sure that the courses provided in each jurisdiction were matching their needs in their economy.
Australia has a national economy, but each State and Territory has their own differences, different labour market, different emphasis in different sectors, and therefore we need to make sure that the delivery of the courses are responsive and required by each state and territory. So yes, firstly, the 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places has been welcomed by other governments, and we will then negotiate with them with each State and each Territory, the way it would work for them, so that we're making sure we're having regard to the particular nature of their economy.
JOURNALIST: Great. And just finally, there's an independent poll out from the Greens today showing a majority of Australians think university and TAFE courses should be free and fully funded. Would you consider making all TAFE courses free in the future?
O'CONNOR: Look, our focus has been to remove cost barriers in areas of shortage, and we'll do what we can. You know, we're a responsible government, fiscally responsible, and when we look to spend taxpayer's money, we do so making sure that there's value for people. We do believe removing barriers, cost barriers in this instance, has worked, but we will consider these matters, obviously, but in the end, we will make sure that we're being fiscally responsible and make decisions about investment in skills and education.
I think Minister Clare, the Minister for Education has made clear that his focus is making sure people who have hitherto not even been able to access university get opportunities. And therefore we have to think about that, when we're looking at the total investment that comes in either through students making some payments, or through the taxpayer. And so ultimately, there's needs to be a balance there. But with respect to the VET sector, what we've identified is people, many people would not enrol in these courses, because they cannot afford the fees. And at a time, when inflation has been relatively high, there's cost of living pressures, and the Albanese Government fully understands the pressures people are under, we've been able to do this. As to whether we make any other decisions about this that will be determined by the Cabinet, and that is not under consideration at this time.
JOURNALIST: Is there any data available on what States have been most skill or labour shortages?
O'CONNOR: No, look it varies enormously. So, because each State has a different economy, for example, there'll be shortages in some states where they're more reliant on aged care than others. I think Queensland, for example, would feel acute shortages in tourism and hospitality after, of course, the exodus of temporary skilled workers and overseas students. That would have made it even more difficult.
So, you can go to each State and Territory and look at particular areas which they are more reliant on a supply of skills, because it's a larger part of their economy. But frankly, the best thing to do is to really map out what that State needs, work with the State Government, and then reach agreement on that. I mean, these are co-funded, this is co-funded investment, and the Federal Government does put in a lot of money, but we want to make sure we do so in concert with the State Government.
It's not about us making decisions on our own, it's about working in concert with other governments. And there's no doubt, collaborative investment, working together to invest strategically in the labour market is critical. We do have to get better at anticipating the emerging demand for labour, and that's why we set up Jobs and Skills Australia. That will better map out what is needed for the labour market today but also anticipate more precisely what is required in the future by understanding the trends that exists whether it's technological change or other factors that influence the nature of the labour market. If we do that better, then our investment in education is better because it's targeting the current and future demands of the labour market more effectively. And that's what we're looking to do through Jobs and Skills Australia and the Jobs and Skills Councils that have also been established.
So, we need that sort of collaboration, not just with State and Territory Governments but with industry. Industry also have a very significant role to identify what they need. And we brought them into Jobs and Skills Australia and Jobs and Skills Councils, which will advise industry and government about where we should be investing in education and training.
JOURNALIST: Slightly off topic, given the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset has been scrapped, do you think people are going to be able to cope with getting a smaller tax return?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: You know, those decisions that government make, make openly and we understand that there may be some impacts on people, but when you make commitments, we make statements that you will follow or pursue a particular policy line, then you have to follow through on that. This government has made commitments, many of them prior to the election, some of them since the election. Once we make a commitment, we look to realise that commitment.
We're always looking at ways to mitigate the effects of the cost of living impact on people. We've done that in a myriad of ways, whether it's intervening in the energy market to reduce energy prices, whether it's providing better subsidies for childcare starting next week, for 1.2 million families that will be better off as a result of that investment by the Commonwealth, whether its Fee-Free TAFE, removing cost barriers for education and training so it's not so difficult for people to acquire skills in areas of demand. There are so many areas, the $2 billion social housing announcement recently made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing. The efforts by the Treasurer really to return a lot of the revenue back to the budget is to try and reduce the costs on interest on the trillion dollars of public debt we inherited by the previous government.
So, we're looking to do things that make it easier for people but we're looking to do so in a fiscally responsible way. So, we announced a budget that's important, and I think that works for people and that's what we're looking to do.
Thank you very much.