By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Many of Australia’s traditional trade industries have faced skills shortages for some time. However, we really saw this gain public attention over the last few years. A spate of natural disasters caused a sharp uptick in demand for trades, and the pandemic saw the near cessation of skilled migration, putting shortages into stark relief.

At that time, we saw the Australian Government recognising the challenges at hand and putting some measures in place to increase apprenticeship commencements and uptake of vocational education and training (VET).

And now, as we progress into recovery, building projects are picking up pace, from home renovations to large-scale infrastructure, only increasing the demand.

However, we are starting to see some positive growth in VET commencements and completions, leading me to wonder whether these are the first green shoots.

Boosting apprenticeship commencements worked

Measures released during the pandemic included the highly successful Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements subsidy, which provided wage subsidies to eligible employers for new apprentices.

While the subsidy is now closed, it was available to eligible employers for some two years. While there are many reasons a business will decide to take on an apprentice, it’s hard to ignore the numbers we saw during the subsidy period.

More than 18,000 commencements were completed by VERTO’s AASN team in the 2021–22 financial year, the largest number of apprenticeships we’ve ever achieved in a 12-month period.

One Broken Hill business owner recently explained to VERTO that the subsidy enabled him to stop ‘umming and ahhing’ as to whether he could take on another apprentice. And I think this sums up the real value for small businesses; it alleviated some of the financial pressures to make the decision simpler. 

But these measures take time to pay off. With the average apprenticeship spanning four years, it will still be a few years before we can fully realise the gain with qualified tradespeople.

Is the tide turning?

We have, however, started to see some positive growth. Recent figures reported by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) suggest that we may be making some much-needed headway.

According to this report, in 2021, there were 4.3 million Australians engaged in vocational education and training, a 9% uplift from the previous year. 44.6% of Australians aged 15–19 participated in vocational education and training, and the number of Diploma and Certificate IV level completions reached its highest point since 2017.

All positive signs that the tide is turning, but it doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Eliminating skills shortages and building a healthy future for our trade industries will take a long-term, multi-faceted approach.

Encouraging more young people into apprenticeships

While subsidies and government initiatives are constructive vehicles, change must start in our schools. Encouraging more young people to consider apprenticeships is vital. I have talked about increasing the emphasis on apprenticeship pathways in our schools and at home, and some excellent mechanisms exist to achieve this.

One such mechanism is the school-based apprenticeship and traineeship (SBAT). This innovative model allows students interested in an apprenticeship career to study for their HSC and begin their apprenticeship simultaneously.

There are also many ‘Try a Trade’ programs around the country that give students real exposure to trade industries to make more informed career decisions.

Other approaches include initiatives to encourage more female students to consider an apprenticeship. On this front, I was heartened to read that the Australian Government is investing $38.6 million over four years to provide additional support for women who commence in eligible trade occupations on the priority list.

The key is to start with our youth. Apprenticeships are a fantastic youth employment mechanism, and getting more young people into trades will alleviate growing skill shortages. It’s a win-win.

Industry partnerships are a must

We must also find ways to increase industry engagement. We can look to countries like Switzerland and Germany, where employers are partners in the vocational education system.

This model creates an efficient ecosystem whereby employers build the skills pipeline to meet their future needs, students build the skills employers want, and funding is shared, easing pressure on government budgets.

Sustaining and building on momentum is key

Apprentices are the backbone of our economy, so we all stand to benefit from a healthy trade industry. I truly hope these are the first green shoots, indicating that we are on our way to building a stronger future for our trade industries. Regardless, we must work together across government, industry and all levels of education to build on this momentum.