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Apprenticeships aren't broken: government must stop trying to 'fix' them

By Naomi Dinnen - posted Monday, 17 June 2013

There's a worrying trend emerging in the education policy arena. The talk is that apprenticeships are 'broken' and need to be fixed.

Policymakers at both state and federal levels are perennially tinkering with skills reform and delivery models for vocational training. The latest example appeared in last week's budget, when the Federal Government announced funding of $69 million for a pilot program to test alternative pathways into trades other than traditional four-year apprenticeships.

While the details are yet to be confirmed, one can only hope this new funding for 'Alternative Pathways' won't be another plan to train new entrants to industry using predominantly classroom-based methods, to the detriment of hands on experience in a real workplace. The existing apprenticeship model, comprising a combination of "on-the-job" and "off-the-job" training has proven successful over a long period of time and works well for the 80,000 apprentices and trainees currently working in NSW.


Despite the broad satisfaction with the current apprenticeship system from employers and apprentices, government can't help itself from wheeling out the policy toolkit to tinker with the workforce skills machine.

The real problem with apprenticeships is that government, who controls the purse strings, is preoccupied with ticking boxes and achieving arbitrary throughputs rather than real outcomes in the form of skills and jobs.

Governments at both state and federal levels are most concerned with the rate of apprenticeship and traineeship completions. The NSW State Plan suggests the panacea to skills shortages is for more people to complete their apprenticeships sooner, that is, within a shorter timeframe than the usual three or four years.

This policy will damage apprentices' prospects on the ground. It's usually in their last year of an apprenticeship when they are well on their way to being skilled and experienced, that the apprentice can demonstrate their value to the employer and secure an ongoing job with them. Reducing the length of time of the apprenticeship in order to speed up completions short changes employees and employers - but it will no doubt look impressive on the department's annual report.

Now is not the time for government to be fiddling with the system. We are seeing apprentice and trainee numbers declining. Figures released in May by the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research show that combined apprenticeship and traineeship commencements have dropped nationally to the lowest rate in over ten years. This is most marked in traineeship commencements, which have plummeted by more than half since this time last year in response to government withdrawal of funding for employers.

This is a worry because low apprenticeship numbers can indicate skills shortages and high youth unemployment.


In March this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showing that long term unemployment has grown by 80 per cent since the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008. That's an additional 200,000 people who have been out of work for over a year. The worst part of this is that more than half of all young people, 16-21 years, who claim income support have been unemployed for more than a year. This trend is unacceptable at a time when many industries are concerned about a foreseeable skills shortage putting the brakes on growth and productivity.

We need to think more deeply about this issue before government makes the same mistakes of withdrawing funding and support for effective skills and training programs in favour of the latest training fads.

No doubt government has the policy levers to encourage young people into work, or at least into trying it. But policymakers are deluded if they think they can influence whether young people will see an apprenticeship through to the end.

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About the Author

Naomi Dinnen is CEO of The Group Training Association of NSW and ACT.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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