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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19057

Ms KERNOT (9:31 AM) —Vocational education and training are a critical part of the equation to get people into work and to keep them there. I think that is an issue that we will be talking a lot about today in another context. Skills and education, coupled with experience, are the most effective ways of increasing the employment prospects for school leavers and the unemployed. What is really important is up-to-date training for those already in the work force because it is crucial to maintain and expand the knowledge base of Australia's work force. We know that in an increasingly globalised environment we must be competitive in the skill and education level of our work force. We know that jobs growth will predominantly occur in occupations where a formal vocational or academic qualification is required. In our Workforce 2010 document, we forecast that 60 per cent of all new jobs over the next 10 years will require a formal post school qualification—post school of some sort. This is a pretty sobering reality when we know that only 40 per cent of the current adult population actually has some form of post school qualification. We have to bridge that gap, and skills education and training are one of the key responsibilities of government. It is the responsibility of government to anticipate that change and to do a good job of matching the training that is provided to the emerging skill needs of a nation.

The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 is a funding bill to provide an extra $13 million a year for the entire VET sector. This amount, which only barely covers CPI cost increases, really does seem quite pitiful at a time when even DETYA has estimated that a 2.8 per cent increase is required to meet increases in demand for training. We know that demand is there. ANTA has also estimated that a 5.7 per cent increase will be required just to keep pace with current trends in demand. And ANTA, in keeping with its brief, is gearing up for a large information campaign aimed at making people more aware of their training opportunities. This estimate by ANTA of growth in demand does not even take this into account. It has not been allowed to. It will not be able to meet the expected increases in demand without some level of growth funding. I do not think we should let this opportunity pass without reminding ourselves that so far this government has cut $240 million out of TAFE funding since coming to office. You cannot be totally committed to training and take such a chunk out of the budget of an important component of this nation's training infrastructure.

The other thing that this bill does nothing about is addressing the skills crisis that Australia is currently experiencing. We know that there are tens of thousands of unfilled vacancies in information technology, nursing, accountancy and hospitality to name but a few occupations. When we have a look at who needs training and retraining and whose training and retraining needs are not being met at the moment, we can see lots of categories. We see employees in workplaces that are at risk of falling prey to structural adjustment. They are very frustrated at not being able to retrain or upgrade their skills so as to maintain their employment. We see carers re-entering the work force, and they are wondering why there is little prospect of their getting access to the up-to-date training that they need to regain employment. These people could be helping to fill vacancies in skilled occupations, but they cannot do this without access to the training or retraining that is required. I think it is the inability of the current system to provide training for those who need it to help address our skills crisis that is denying those Australians all of the things that flow from the dignity of work, including financial and social security.

So it is not just about punishing people for not having work; it is about the other side of the mutual obligation contract. It is about making serious training opportunities available. If we do not do that, it is not just about the bottom line of a social security budget; it is about holding back the long-term economic and intellectual development of Australia. The lack of skilled information technology professionals in Australia is a case in point. It is not as if we were not aware that this was an area of jobs growth opportunities. I have here an article from the Age from yesterday headed `Apprentice shortage sparks industry alarm', which states, `New technology is here—but where are the people to install it?' The article goes on to talk about apprenticeships in this sector, in particular in electrotechnology. It says that what we should be alarmed about is that 68 per cent of electrotechnology apprentices do not complete their training. There are a whole range of apprenticeships applicable to this industry. But if we do not have the people who can do this work, how can we make the connection, so to speak, and take the next step?

Economic commentators are pointing out that unless we can skill up those unemployed who need it, unless we can address the skills crisis, then economic growth, as well as falls in unemployment, will hit a barrier. We welcome the drop in the unemployment rate, but we say that it is a real challenge to the government to make that drop sustainable. We cannot move forward as a nation and make that growth sustainable if we do not more seriously address the need for the unemployed to receive the skills and the education they need.

I should make a comment this morning on the attitude of this government on welfare to work, the attitude that people who are out there who need training are actually `job snobs' who will not take work that is available or work that Mr Abbott says is available. I think we should focus on approaches to long-term unemployed people, single parents and the disabled and what chance they have of access to training and how that will help them make a meaningful transition from welfare to work. Most of these people who are able would like to work. They know that they want to share in the economic benefits that are accruing to many in society. So, on the one hand, we have a government saying, `Get out there and do it or we'll punish you.' But, on the other hand, we have a government which is not giving them appropriate access to skills and training and the work experience that will help them make that transition.

I think a true commitment to training and education for those who are out of the work force but who are able to re-enter it and want to re-enter it is about building a partnership; it is not about big sticks and punishment. I think we all have responsibility as members of the community to actually say on a case by case basis, `Here are your strengths. Here are your weaknesses. If you have been retrenched, here is a different way of looking at your skills. Here is the sort of retraining that you will need to make you employable in a continuing way.' If I were to make one overall criticism of this government's approach to training it would be that it is very disjointed. There is not a clear path between the various federal government training programs or between the federal government programs and the state areas of responsibility. This bill, which provides for a small increase in funding, will do very little to address this problem. I think the issue with this bill is what it does not do rather than what it does do.

With respect to a continuum of training, Labor believes that we should be able to access vocational education and training in schools, that students should have access to a program of structured training and on-the-job experience. From there, for those who need it, there should be access to either an apprenticeship or a further education opportunity. That seems simple but at the moment we have schools competing with some areas of the Job Network system. For example, we have schools teaching resume writing and interview skills and we have the Job Network doing the same thing. That is just a small example of a lack of coherence in the system, and I think it is something that we should address.

I think special attention needs to be paid to employees who are facing retrenchment. I think one of the positive aspects of the recent Age Counts report is that it does pick up on something we have been saying for some timeand I guess it is commonsense to say thisthat intervention is better than letting things fester and cause greater social dislocation in the long run. Some recommendations in this report actually point to what we talked about in our Workforce 2010, identifying workers and sectors at risk, getting in there and working with employers, working with unions, working with training institutions and asking: what do we need to do to make sure that we do not just dump these people onto the scrap heap of unemployment and treat them as disposable, as some kind of throwaway cigarette lighter? At last we are coming to a discussion in this country of our responsibility towards those who have borne the disproportionate share of the consequences of economic restructuring. This report, with respect to my idea of a continuum of training, would be appropriate. It says:

The Committee recommends that the Minister for Employment Services ensure that where appropriate, training components funded under Job Network be given vocational training recognition according to endorsed national competency standards.

That is one of the problems in the training system at the moment: young people going to work for the dole. The Minister for Employment Services says that it is only about attitude. Labor has no problem with asking young people to assess attitude, to giving them some meaning and structure to their day. But it is a six-month commitment they are asked to make, and we think part of that six-month commitment should be that at the end of it you come out with more than a certificate that says, `I attended Work for the Dole for six months.' You should come out with a certificate which takes you to the next step in a training continuum and gives you a really basic competency level to take with you. If you are lucky enough to go on to employment, it is part of the steps towards lifelong learning with which we heartily concur. People obviously need lifelong learning. Life is very flexible. People move in and out of different careers these days. But for those who do not have the skills at the very beginning, I think this government could do a better job of matching up what is needed and making that available to those most at risk.

That brings me to Job Network. I think that Job Network could be doing a much better job of giving unemployed people access to training. At the moment it really is a wasted opportunity. Last week I was very disappointed to hear the Minister for Employment Services say that training as a means for people to gain employment has been bypassed by events. What kinds of events will wipe out the reality of where jobs growth in the future will occur? It is going to occur in the sales, marketing, retail, health, education, welfare and hospitality sectors. We know this is where future demand is going to occur. Training has not been bypassed by events; training has been made more urgent by the reality of skill shortages and the lack of coherent matching by this government of those emerging shortages and what is needed to quickly skill our population to meet the challenges of the future. I think the one thing that Job Network needs to reassess in its design is that, when people are accepted for intensive assistance, there is an expectation that part of the money will be expended on training, but there is no guarantee. There is very little auditing of what kind of training happens. Despite what the minister for employment thinks, most people who go into Job Network say that they want to come out of it with something to show as being realistic training. Some of the better providers pay TAFE fees for some of their clients; some of the poorer providers give a very cheap version of a very basic outsourced course and call that training.

In the moments left to me I want to touch very briefly on mature age people. I started on that subject, and I want to make just a couple more comments. The other thing that this committee draws attention to which is worthy of support or of consideration when we are talking about a continuum of training is the recommendation that the government fund a national computer literacy and training program for mature age people. This does not need to cost a lot of money. Such a program could be provided through a variety of existing government and non-government facilities. When we talk about training for mature age Australians, particularly those who have held down one job all their life, we find that, for a lot of them, there is a lack of experience with basic things like computer skills; their job has not required them to be exposed to that in the past. But now you will find that, even for a storeman and packers job, it is probably more important to have computer skills than it is to have a forklift licence. By denying part of our work force easy access to this kind of basic training we are in fact reducing their opportunity for quick employability. So I think that that is a recommendation on which we should act quickly. Also, a couple of years ago, in its document `45 + The Changing Face of Work and its Impact on Australians over 45', which was a look at the problems of mature age unemployed in this country, Labor said—and this recommendation has a similar flavour—that the government should look at a specific subsidy for mature age people undertaking traineeships or apprenticeships.

The overall point I want to make here is that this is a bill about funding training. It makes a very small allocation of funding when you think of the huge and growing needs that are out there. But it is an important area to invest in because it is all about improving employability. It is all about making us more responsive to the demands of globalisation, making us a highly skilled nation. It is also, though, about how we can turn around our strengths—and we have many as a nation. Ireland was able to turn itself around with call centres. When the rest of the world caught on to call centres, they said, `What is our strength in this area?' and they made their call centre training more directly linked to multilingual call centre provision. They were able to quickly turn around the training opportunities in their country, and I think we could do a much better job in this country.

Finally, I think the really deficient thing in this bill is that the money contained in it is not even guaranteed to flow on to the Australian National Training Authority or to the states. Dr Kemp has said that funding in 2001 is subject to the finalisation of a satisfactory amended ANTA agreement. I think we have to remember that it is Dr Kemp who has refused to back up the move to a national framework with funding to address serious quality concerns identified by the various Schofield reports on training. It is a good thing that these reports are happening in the states around the nation, and there are some constructive suggestions coming from them. Overall, there is a constructive commitment in this country from the states to work in partnership with the federal government for a national framework. This silly political fighting over the conditions under which the framework will be reached—and it is a position taken primarily by Dr Kemp—really undermines, I think, our chances of achieving this national framework.

To make a direct comparison, I think the difference between Labor and the coalition on this point is that we are not trying to deceive people into thinking that we are out there providing heaps of training when in fact we are providing an ad hoc, disjointed system of a lot of often el cheapo basic courses which do not lead people on to that coherent continuum of competency which takes them to the next stage in employment. (Time expired)