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No one wants to be a 19th century trade apprentice

By Stuart Collins - posted Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The building and construction industry is one of the mainstays of the Australian economy, worth almost $70 billion a year and keeping more than 350,000 in work. Dynamic and internationally competitive, it offers considerable flexibility, equally accommodating to the self-employed and the wage-earner. There is significant potential for substantial financial rewards for those following a number of complementary career paths.

Why then should this highly successful industry with so much to offer, be suffering from a skills shortage so grave it is in danger of throwing it into crisis? Lack of skilled labour has resulted in delays in completing new homes, producing frustrations for the owners and declining profitability for the industry.

To understand why this problem exists use this analogy: if any Australian university found that 55 per cent of its students were either dropping out or failing their degrees, there would be an outcry. If those figures were reported throughout the tertiary system there would be calls for Royal Commissions, demands for instant reform of curricula and heads would roll.


Yet 55 per cent equals the drop-out rate from building and construction apprenticeships each year. It is twice the industrial average and it is happening in the face of a skills shortage so acute it threatens to disrupt our economic growth. Clearly action is needed, but what has to be done?

The drop-out rate is the key. It is clearly pointless advertising the attraction of careers in the building trades if the pathway to those careers is considered to be too difficult or onerous. The industry is being strangled by an outdated training system, inflexible and with glacial outcomes.

In the last Federal Budget the Government introduced a voucher system to meet TAFE fees and a $1,000 wage subsidy for first and second-year apprentices - commendable and much-needed measures, but ones that on their own will not deliver the number of skilled workers to meet existing, let alone future needs.

The fact the number of construction apprenticeships starts has doubled over the past five years makes good reading until we remember that it is those who finish who are going to benefit the industry and the consumers who seek their services.

The trade apprenticeship, designed for 19th century conditions when a builder was supposed to have all the skills needed to construct a home, is hopelessly ill-suited to a 21st century devoted to specialisation. Why should a potential form worker be required to complete an apprenticeship which includes carpentry or an apprentice who wants to become a paver battle through training on bricklaying?

Time after time people leave because they see their training as irrelevant, trapping them on a trainee’s wages while they see their friends earning good money and moving up the promotion ladder.


This antiquated structure bears no relation to the requirements of modern industry. A business that specialises in paving courtyards, patios and the like does not want to see its apprentice disappear for long periods to learn skills totally irrelevant to the work it wants him or her to do. Could there be a greater disincentive to hiring in the first place?

The apprenticeship system is not attractive to young people wanting early financial rewards. Few are impressed by talk of the substantial sums earned by tradespeople in later life when the current reality is that they must live on low apprentice wages for years.

If there was an alternative pathway enabling a young person aiming say, to be a carpenter to gain qualifications just in that particular field, they could then quickly move into the industry and, if they wished, gain further qualifications in related fields at the same time as they were earning reasonable wages. This is a trades training system that the industry is crying out for, and far more preferable to the “all or nothing” approach blindly focused on across-the-board trade skills.

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About the Author

Stuart Collins is the National Manager of Skills Policy at the Housing Industry Association.

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

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