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Time to recruit five-year-olds to ensure future prosperity

By Jenny Macklin - posted Friday, 4 March 2005

There’s a report on the Howard Government's management of Australia's skills shortage that federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson doesn't want you to see.

The report by the Social Research Centre in Melbourne was commissioned more than a year ago. It cost taxpayers almost $250,000. Nelson is sitting on the report. And it may never see the light of day if a plan to classify it as an internal departmental document succeeds.

Why the secrecy? Because the report reveals the outcomes of the Howard Government's New Apprenticeship program. The findings are clearly embarrassing to the Howard Government. It's not hard to understand why. The Government has well and truly failed the skills test.


We have a drastic skills shortage that is hurting Australian business, families and the economy. Skill as a driver of productivity has dropped 75 per cent over 10 years. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says there has been a 24 per cent drop in completions of traditional apprenticeships since 1996 - resulting in 56,000 fewer qualified tradespeople under the Howard Government.

Australian businesses are crying out for more skilled workers in key trades. Metal workers, toolmakers, mechanics, electricians, carpenters and bricklayers are all in desperately short supply. Every day we hear new stories about the skills shortage driving up costs and wages and jeopardising industry projects. Yet the Government turns 40,000 people away from TAFE colleges each year and its only new policy announcement has been a handful of technical colleges dreamed up on the run during the election campaign.

The colleges will eventually graduate about 3,600 people a year - a pitiful number when the Australian Industry Group says that we need more than 100,000 skilled tradespeople in the next 5 years.

Against this backdrop, it's no wonder the Howard Government wants to sit on a report about its New Apprenticeship scheme. We already know that most of the growth in the New Apprenticeship scheme has occurred in areas where there are no skill shortages.

But it's not just the Government's failure to address the shortage in traditional trades that is hurting Australia's economy. A skill shortage in the professions, especially the sciences, is also taking its toll. Civil engineers and medical scientists have been on the Government's National Skill Shortage List for years and the number of Australians starting a science degree has fallen from its 1997 peak.

Yet the Howard Government turns away around 20,000 people from university every year. Last year, the total number of Australians at university dropped for only the second time in 50 years. This is a shocking indictment at a time when everybody from the Reserve Bank of Australia to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is shouting warnings about Australia's skills crisis.


Australia's shortage of professional scientists can be traced to the decisions young people are making at school. Year 12 enrolments in physics, chemistry and advanced maths are falling steadily. Between 1980 and 2002, the proportion of Year 12 students taking chemistry or physics nearly halved.

Clearly, young Australians are not being sufficiently engaged by the wonders of science, and their detachment is having a damaging effect on Australia's economy. Reinvigorating interest in physics, chemistry and engineering is vital for key Australian industries, particularly mining, construction and technology. These are some of our areas of greatest economic strength yet we are unable to meet current demand for graduates, let alone keep pace with the potential for growth.

To begin to solve this problem we need to do many things. One is to change the way young people are relating to science in school. We need to find new ways of instilling in children the wonder and curiosity about the world around them that leads them to want to undertake scientific endeavours.

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First published in The Australian on February 28, 2005.

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About the Author

Jenny Macklin is federal Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Employment, Education and Training. She is the federal member for Jagajaga (VIC).

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