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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 60

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (1:14 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on what I regard as being an exceptionally important issue. It is the challenge of all political parties and governments to try to make some progress on one of the biggest problems confronting Australia at the moment, and that is the shortage of trade labour. Our problem is that the shortage of trade labour is now adding to cost pressures that exist in delivering projects on time and on budget in Australia. It is also at the point where it is essentially going to hold back investment in Australia and reduce export earnings. For example, in the resource and tourism sectors we do not have the available labour to fulfil our potential international commitments in the export sector. I simply say that this is a very important debate.

The training system in Australia can never be allowed to stand still. Labor found that in its period of government from 1983 to 1996, and the Howard government is now experiencing the same challenge. That is because the world of work in Australia has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Some industries have grown in importance, obviously because of decisions—which were correct—that were made by the Hawke and Keating governments to further open up Australia to global competitive pressures. That effectively has meant that in my area, the constituency of Batman, industries that were historically important to Australia, such as the saddlery, leather and canvas industry, the textile, clothing and footwear industry and the automotive industry, have declined in importance. On the other hand, the service sector has grown in importance in my electorate. Education now is the biggest employer in my electorate, through La Trobe University and the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE. There has been an associated growth in the provision of financial services. Aged care is also where there are new jobs.

We as a nation always have to try to make sure that we adjust our training system to meet the needs of emerging industries. As the member for Perth outlined in the debate on this bill yesterday, the record shows that the Howard government has been all too slow to adjust to the changing world of work over the last 11½ years. Having said that, I must say that the opposition understands the importance of the Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007. It is about the government finally taking up the suggestion by the Labor Party that something had to be done to encourage our young people who commence an apprenticeship to see it through. We need to create a completion bonus or an additional incentive to encourage people to put their head down and to complete the training. Labor understands that, for young people, the first- and second-year apprentice wages are not all that good. Apprentices see their mates, when they meet from time to time, on Friday night or on Saturday at the football, who have a few more dollars in their pockets because they have chosen not to undertake an apprenticeship but to work as labourers or factory hands and earn more in the first couple of years of employment. That grates on those apprentices because they are doing the training and going to TAFE, and in their minds a few more dollars would help.

That is what the trade completion bonus proposed by Labor would do. It is now emerging in the form of an incentive of $2,000 over two years, as proposed by the Howard government. That will apply to people under 30 who undertake an Australian apprenticeship in a trade occupation area. So, one way or another, both sides of politics are trying to work out how we do the right thing by young people who are prepared to take up an apprenticeship—to give them some additional financial reward. We need to encourage them to do the right thing by themselves, their families and their communities and to complete their trade, which will guarantee an active working life.

That is what is so dear to the hearts of the Labor Party—the world of work. We all appreciate that we still define ourselves by our capacity to hold down a job and to put food on the table. We want to make sure that if your children get sick you can afford to take them to the doctor, that you can educate your kids and that, from time to time, you can take them on an outing or have a holiday. But, without the opportunity of holding down a gainful job, that is not possible. Those who undertake some form of training at the completion of schooling, be it an apprenticeship or university education, have the best capacity to hold down a job for the whole of their working life. That is what this debate is about.

I say to the government that I understand that they are also committed to the world of work. But for members of the government and, in this instance, the former Minister for Vocational Education and Training, the member for Moreton, to suggest that Labor Party members do not care about work and apprenticeships is just plain wrong. It is a reflection on him and the fact that he has passed his use-by date. I think he is still suffering from relevance deprivation after having been sacked by the Prime Minister for nonperformance in the vocational education portfolio earlier this year. It is also well known around Brisbane at the moment that he is in the job market. If an attractive offer were to be made he would be out the door at the next election. But, unfortunately, it seems that the private sector is not interested in him because he failed to deliver on the vocational education front during his period as a minister in what I regard as being one of the most important portfolios of government.

It is for the reasons I have outlined that the opposition welcomed the announcement on budget night of apprenticeship incentives from the government. We are prepared to give credit where credit is due. One way or another, we have all made mistakes on the apprenticeship training front. We seriously question now whether or not it was appropriate to abolish—and governments of both political persuasions were responsible for this—the tech colleges of the past. We are all now trying to reinvent the wheel on that front. I think it is fairly well accepted in the Australian community now that, for whatever reason, both major political parties got it wrong. That undermined trade training in Australia.

I must say that I am delighted to have a cluster operation in my electorate, at Northland Secondary College, which has the support of employers, the Australian government and the Victorian government. It will create an opportunity for young people across all the schools in my electorate to come in and undertake a day’s training per week as part of their apprenticeship. That is the way forward. I hope that the proposals of the Leader of the Opposition in his budget response this year are actually taken up on that basis. Schools should not be going their individual ways but should be working collectively in a region to create a cluster opportunity so that each week those kids who desire an apprenticeship can leave their normal high school, go to a semi-work situation and undertake their trade training on a regular basis as part of the start of an apprenticeship whilst at school.

We have a responsibility as a nation to equip ourselves for the future via some form of training for as many young Australians as we can achieve, be it through a trade training opportunity or a university opportunity. It is about building our future prosperity. It is also about overcoming some of the foreign debt problems that currently confront Australia. These are boom times, but we could do better. We are now losing export earnings and the capacity to build a better future because we do not have the tradespeople to actually do the jobs, to tackle the infrastructure bottlenecks, to overcome the challenges of climate change, to assist people in improving their health, to do something about energy security in Australia and also—in that context—to do something about the national security of Australia.

Setting aside the issue of politics, it is also appropriate that we accept that we have a national crisis on the trade training front at the moment that threatens the economic health of Australia. We are talking about a skills crisis that sees a shortage of around 83,000 workers in Australia at this point in time. In youth we learn and in age we understand, and I have been around in politics long enough to understand the serious implications that such a shortage of skilled workers could have on the nation’s future, our economy and Australia’s investment and growth opportunities. I also appreciate that there is a human face to this issue. While there is no silver bullet, the government has the ability to create the right climate for fixing this crisis. If we do not, it will directly impact on the quality of life and social welfare of so many Australians, particularly young people. I am talking about not just Australia’s current youth but our future generations, who are currently working through their school years and who will enter the workforce in the next five to 10 years. So we have to get the foundations of this system right now.

It came as no surprise to many of us who move around the community that two of the top four occupational job vacancy groups on the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations website last month were labourers, factory and machine workers, and positions in the food, hospitality and tourism sectors. In those two areas alone, there were nearly 21,000 vacancies advertised in May. It is a trend that becomes all the more disturbing when you look at the skilled vacancies index and realise that the demand for workers is not abating. Last month saw increases in demand of 1.9 per cent not only for building and engineering professionals but also for those in construction trades. While the increased demand for engineering professionals is obviously of concern, when you compare the indexes of professional positions versus trade vacancies, there is a huge gap. It is clear that on the ground everyone—from small business to large multinationals—is seeking out trade workers. They are in direct competition with one another.

The truth is that those trade workers have become a rare commodity in Australia, a resource-rich nation that is letting itself down on the training front. Business and industry have therefore quickly come to the realisation, as they place ads for positions that no-one replies to, that traditional trades may not have been fashionable as an education pathway a decade ago. That needs to change and to change quickly. That is clearly the position of the opposition, as reflected in the Leader of the Opposition’s address in reply to the budget this year. It is a change in mindset that the opposition do not need to embrace, as we have never shied away from acknowledging the importance of encouraging more people into traditional apprenticeships. It was bread and butter for the Hawke and Keating governments, which, I might remind the House, created the Australian National Training Authority to force all state and territory governments—in association with the Commonwealth, trade unions and employers—to get more serious about trade training in Australia. We saw the challenge coming, we grasped the nettle and we tried to do something about it. It is only since 1996 that we have had a manipulation of the numbers to suggest that what were best regarded as traineeships in the non-traditional areas were counted as apprenticeships to hide the failure of the government in traditional trades training. That is where we have gone backwards and that is where Australia is now suffering.

Apprenticeships in the traditional trade areas of construction, electronics, automotive, catering and metalwork have always, and will always, go to the core, the bricks and mortar, of our nation and our society. They are the engine room of what is required at the moment, be it in the resources, the transport, the building and construction or the tourism sectors—just to name a few sectors crying out for skilled labour at the moment. They will fill our requirements for future mechanics, construction workers, chefs, drivers and mining workers—jobs that our society just cannot do without. I am pleased to say that apprenticeships have started to make a slight comeback in Australia, thanks to widespread anecdotes about wealthy tradespeople. Yet the complete failure of the government to recognise the importance of apprenticeships and create a culture that encourages young people into traditional trades has led the nation to face a crisis at this point. We cannot afford to let that crisis go on, because it is squeezing our economic capacity. The number of apprentices and trainees in training last year was virtually unchanged from one year earlier. And, while there were increases in the resources boom states of Queensland and Western Australia, there were declines in the remaining states and territories.

There is also a responsibility on state and territory Labor governments in some instances to be more serious about trades training. The House should recall that it was Labor in government that started the school pre-apprenticeships. We saw the benefits of those who did not want to go to university starting their apprenticeship training at school, which enabled them to complete their post-school apprenticeship earlier. That effectively meant that they were more job ready and attractive to employers. We understood the important needs of employers and the requirement of government, through the education system, to do something about assisting small and large employers who are prepared to take on the responsibility.

Training young people in Australia is a huge responsibility, so I want to say to the private sector, especially those employers doing the right thing: thank you. But I also want to say to a range of other employers in Australia that it is not acceptable to go on the job market and try to body-snatch off an employer who is doing the right thing, by offering a few more dollars to their trained labour. It is the responsibility of all employers in Australia—and I know it is a huge responsibility; it adds stress to one’s business—to accept the need to train Australians. So, to those who are doing a good job: thanks very much. But, to those who are not pulling their weight, I think I can say on behalf of everybody in the House that we all have a responsibility, including in our own electorate offices, to take on young people and train them. Training is the key to their future, and it is the key to our nation’s future.

In the portfolios I cover as a shadow minister, training is the key issue raised with me in discussions over the last couple of years about the resources sector, the energy sector, the forestry sector and, in more recent times, the transport sector and the hospitality and tourism sector. Finally employers accept that they are also part of the problem and they are looking for government assistance to try and be part of the solution. That is what the bill before the House today is about. The government accepts, as does the opposition, that the government has to take part in offering incentives to assist in encouraging young people not only to start apprenticeships but also to complete them. The measure in this bill is about a higher financial reward for doing the right thing by themselves and by their employer.

However, more has to be done. Across the states we have now started to review the length of apprenticeships. That means that in some apprenticeship training areas we can reduce the period of an apprenticeship without undermining the quality of the outcome. By starting more apprenticeships at school we can also shorten the length of those apprenticeships more than we have done in the past. I am pleased to say that in some apprenticeship areas now, such as in the vehicle repair industry in Victoria, kids who start their apprenticeship at school can have the post-school period of that apprenticeship reduced to three years. And, once they commence the apprenticeship post school, the rates are the second-, third- and fourth-year rates rather than the lower rate traditionally applied in the first year of an apprenticeship after school. That is tremendously important to young people so that they can meet their own financial commitments. Industry by industry, in association with the unions, who are the apprentices’ representatives in many instances, and with the employer organisations we have to do the hard work of looking at how we can streamline apprenticeship training in Australia but without undermining the quality of the training outcome. We do not want shoddy tradespeople in Australia. We have prided ourselves internationally as a nation that produced quality workers, and that is why, historically, we were prepared to invest in training opportunities in Australia.

There is a willingness by young people to undertake apprenticeships, but they require employers to take them on, and the employers require government assistance, through a partnership of federal, state and territory governments, to be able to carry the load of apprenticeship training in Australia. The Labor Party firmly believe the federal government has to do more in this area, and this budget measure is part of that debate. It is akin to the trade completion bonus that Labor put out for policy debate and consideration some 18 months to two years ago. We are pleased that the government has finally reacted on this front. By whatever measure, something had to be done to increase the financial payments for young apprentices of Australia. This bonus provides $2,000 in two instalments for traditional apprentices who complete their training, while Labor’s proposed skills account would pay the up-front fees of all Australian apprentices in traditional areas. People should not underestimate the cost impact of that on some young people and their families. It is not inconsiderable. We focus on the issue of HECS and higher education payments from time to time, but a lot of low-income families find these apprenticeship training fees in TAFEs are a serious financial impost on them and their families.

I commend the government for taking this initiative. As I said, it is akin to Labor’s trade completion bonus. So, by whatever measure, we are finally starting to make some progress as a nation on a fundamental challenge— that is, how we can get more apprentices, especially in our traditional trade areas but, more importantly, having attracted them, how we encourage them to complete their apprenticeship and go on to a very worthwhile work opportunity in life. I commend to the House the second reading amendment to the bill moved by Mr Stephen Smith, the shadow minister for education and training and member for Perth. (Time expired)