ABC RADIO NATIONAL AUSTRALIA, ANDY PARK
FRIDAY, 25 AUGUST 2023
Topics: Skills Shortages, Fee-Free TAFE, VET Sector, Rare skills apprenticeships
ANDY PARK: Well, State and Territory leaders have come together today in Perth to agree on new rules for registered training organisations or RTOs to kind of flush out dodgy operators who've in the past been accused of luring international students and operating so‑called "ghost schools" where students don't attend classes, but they still receive qualifications.
It means owners and operators of these training organisations will have to comply with fit and proper person requirements in order to maintain or obtain their registration.
Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. He joins me now from Fremantle in Western Australia where he's been meeting with his State and Territory counterparts. Welcome back to Drive, Minister.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Happy to be here, thanks Andy.
PARK: Tell me, explain this to me, what is a "fit and proper person test", and who will decide this, who will conduct these assessments?
O'CONNOR: Well, these are regulated by ASQA, the VET regulating body that really seeks to ensure that those who seek to own or manage a registered training organisations do so in an ethical matter, that have quality training, and don't act unethically or unlawfully, and we've had a history of problems with a minority of providers, which has caused damage to the reputation of the VET sector.
We need to tighten up on this, crack down on those disreputable providers and unethical people that involve themselves in defrauding students or undermining the reputation of the sector.
So that's the body that does it, but today, as you just said in your introduction, the Ministerial Council involving me and the State and Territory Skills Ministers has agreed to tighten up on the regulations around who can manage and own the registered training organisations.
PARK: Will this include all existing operators, will they be subjected to this test, or, and if so, could that mean that some lose their licence?
O'CONNOR: If something arose that was completely offending the laws, that may be an issue. This legislation applies to those that have made admissions. There are things in place now, and in fact there's more to be done as well, it's not just the fit and proper persons, for example, even providers today, if they do the wrong thing, can be dealt with, but we needed to tighten it up for prospective applications.
That's what we're doing, and I think there's more to be done, and I made that clear to my counterpart Ministers to tighten up on the regulations, including dealing with existing providers. It can't just be about who may be making applications, it has to be those operators who act unlawfully, unethically, or do have sub‑standard training.
We need to make sure that the VET sector is fit for purpose, applying skills to our economy, to students, to businesses as effectively as possible, and one of the ways to do that is to make sure we've got good operators, honest operators in the sector.
PARK: I want to move on to skills shortages. Last week the National Cabinet signed up to a sort of bonus structure for the building of new homes, a pool of $3 billion available to states and territories who can exceed their building targets. There are people, you know, really crying out for workers and delays to builds right now. Isn't it reality that this ambition will be cruelled by the very lack of skilled workers?
O'CONNOR: Well, that's why we have to supply as fast as possible the skills that are needed. Upon election the Albanese Government inherited not just a trillion dollars of public debt, it found that the occupations shortage list nearly doubled in 12 months before we were elected from 153 to 286.
The OECD said that Australia's labour shortage, was the second highest amongst OECD countries. So, there's plenty of evidence to show that there's a lot of work to be done. That's why at the Jobs and Skills Summit we announced 180,000 fee‑free TAFE places which have been filled now. We're committing to a further 300,000 fee‑free places, and these are places that are in demand, and that includes the areas you've just referred to -the traditional trades, but also includes, nurses, and other sectors of the economy that are crying out for skills.
PARK: Well let's talk about some of those other critical trades. We need 5,000 motor mechanics, 3,000 electricians, nearly 4,000 metal fitter and machinists. I mean how on earth are we going to fill some of these gaps?
O'CONNOR: There's a combination of ways. Firstly, trying to attract and retain people who have those skills. For example, we have a shortage of teachers, but we have teachers that are not currently in the teaching profession.
Is there a way that we can retain and attract teachers back into the profession or keep people from leaving? There's also educating and training people in the areas of demand. We need to do that better, we shouldn't be just relying on a supply chain of skills from overseas, but of course we need to also supplement education and training with skilled migration pathways.
But people see it as some sort of magic pudding. There are global shortages of many of these occupations. So what ultimately is the best way to resolve this in the medium to long‑term? It's making sure we have a better understanding of the existing and emerging areas of demand of the labour market, so when we spend billions of dollars in education and training we do so knowing there's a lag between the training and the skill acquisition. We do so understanding what the emerging demands will be.
So to take your point regarding motor mechanics, we need to be better at understanding and mapping the labour market, working out what's needed today and tomorrow.
One of the ways to do that was to set up Jobs and Skills Australia, which is the tripartite body which brings together public and private data, so that we can be better able to anticipate the emerging demands, invest in the areas we need and also have skilled migration pathways sensitive to those needs today and tomorrow.
PARK: The Intergenerational Report came ‑ yesterday's release really kind of highlighted our shift to a care economy over the coming decades, and I know this sort of straddles your colleagues' portfolio as well. But we already have a deficit of what, 9,000 workers in this sector. We know that these things can't be rushed. Quality carers surely are as important as quantity. How are you addressing this?
O'CONNOR: Again, and I think it's a combination of ways. There is no one answer to fixing this problem, as you would understand. So the first thing I'd like to say and remind your listeners is that we supported the increase of a 15 per cent wage improvement for aged care workers because we are not attracting and we are losing good workers who just find it really hard to do very rewarding but challenging work with such low wages.
That's the first thing, making sure employment conditions are reasonable and decent, and commensurate with the responsibilities they have. Obviously, we need to make sure that we're educating and training people, and I'd like to say, of the 180,000 fee-free TAFE places that have already been filled within less than a year of announcing it, a large proportion of those are from the care economy. I think a third of those are from the care economy, which is a great supply that we need, and one of the reasons that we've got more enrolments than ever before is we've removed the fees in those courses where the skills are in demand.
That has actually helped. And the TAFE colleges and VET providers are saying we're getting more enrolments in these areas because we're removing cost barriers to students to enrol in courses where they're gaining skills in demand, like the care economy.
So, there's a combination of ways. And then of course we'll also have to look at skilled migration pathways. Our demography is such that people are living longer, that's a good thing, living healthier and longer lives, but we therefore do have to attend to how many older Australians we need to look after. A lot of it can be done through investing in the local workforce, but no doubt it will be supplemented by skilled migration pathways.
PARK: I just want to ask you about apprenticeships. In many States niche occupations like coopers or blacksmiths or saddlers or farriers are legislated against taking on apprentices, essentially it's illegal to pass these skills down in a professional sense in an apprentice arrangement. You know, we're a wine‑making nation, and yet we have to import a vast amount of barrels, because we have so few coopers now.
One of the reasons the Howard Government, you know, behind this is the Howard Government, you know, shifted away from these trades in the 90s, because it was cheaper to import a lot of these products than support Australian‑made ones. But the Government ‑ there is room here, there is a valid question to ask, what the Government is doing in terms of considering opening the apprenticeship programs to skills and trades like these.
O'CONNOR: Well, it's a really good point you've raised, which is sometimes governments get it wrong by thinking we can rely upon solely overseas skills. We're a country built on immigration, it's always going to be part of the answer, but you do not close down the acquisition of skills in this country and expect it all to happen overseas.
PARK: Because what if China's economic decline continues? I mean where are we going to get these sorts of trades for fields locally?
O'CONNOR: And not just China. I mean, firstly, there's a global shortage in some of these areas. Secondly when we talk about the pandemic, it reminded us we shouldn't be overly reliant on supply chains, and we don't mean just supply chains of goods and services, we mean a supply chain of human resources, skills and knowledge. And therefore, I'm all for getting the best people to come here if we've got shortages, but I really also think it's incumbent upon countries, it's incumbent upon governments and industry to make sure we're also training people here in areas of increasing demand.
PARK: So is it incumbent upon you, Minister to reopen, reopen the apprenticeship programs to rare skills?
O'CONNOR: It increasingly concerns me that people have made these short‑term decisions which have had long‑term adverse effects. And my point to you in response to what you just asked is that I am open to looking at any matter that's going to help this country's supply skills domestically if that's more effective to do so. I think it's crazy to be over reliant on skilled migration pathways.
PARK: I'll quote you on that.