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Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Page: 5051

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (17:49): I am very pleased to rise today in support of the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012 to establish the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency to improve national, long-term workforce planning and development to address the skills and labour shortages, and contribute to improved labour market participation and industry and workplace productivity.

I find it odd hearing the opposition's issues with this bill, one being that, heaven forbid, employees should have a seat at the table. It is important that the vast majority of employees out there who require upskilling and who will benefit from this training should not have a seat at the table. That is the criticism from the opposition. I find it an odd situation but I will leave the opposition to nitpick on the sidelines, while this government gets on with the job of pursuing a skills agenda.

I am very proud of what this government has done with our skills agenda, because skills are critical to our future prosperity. Skills are central to ensuring that we have the workforce needed to deliver innovative, high quality services and products that will power our economy in the Asian century. In a changing economy, skills also build resilience. We heard the member for Farrer talking earlier about the Work for the Dole program and other schemes of the previous Howard government, but I have to say that our government has been focused on many different avenues to ensure that people get skills. We do not see a one-size-fits-all solution such as Work for the Dole. We want to see a variety of solutions, a variety of opportunities, to provide skills for many, many people.

Skills do provide and build resilience so that workers do have the flexibility to change jobs, to apply skills in different contexts and continue to learn. For individuals, higher skills means more opportunity. I heard the member for Farrer scoffing at people getting skills, but higher skills do mean more opportunity, more choice and higher wages, leading to a better life for those people and their families. To businesses, a skilled nation means that they can get workers with the right skills to ensure that their business remains competitive and that they can take advantage of new opportunities. Indeed, 1.4 working Australians do not have the necessary skills for entry into the key growth sectors of our economy. The ABS estimates that these workers earn up to $10,000 less than their skilled peers.

Skills Australia estimates that in the five years up to 2015 Australia will need an additional 2.1 million people in the workforce with VET qualifications. In my state of South Australia alone the ABS data estimates that 300,000 people are missing out on the opportunities that come with higher skills. It also shows that South Australia will need an additional 30,000 people with diploma qualifications by 2015.

It is incredibly important that this government respond to the need for skills in our economy. Certainly it has done this. The key areas of growth are going to be in the technical and service areas. Information released by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has pointed to a variety of occupations that are needed specifically for South Australia. These include various types of managers, professionals and technicians across construction, engineering, automotive, food trades, mining, electrotechnology, telecommunications trades, skilled animal and horticultural workers and health professionals. The department points out that there have been various shortages and difficulties in recruiting to these professions.

Since the day this Labor government was elected we have been committed to skilling up Australia—and not just in giving it a bit of window dressing, like the previous government did, when lot of the traineeships were used to subsidise wages rather than to ensure that Australians had the skills that would give them better opportunities. The previous government masked and window dressed, but we do not want to do that. We want to ensure that individuals are able to create a better life for themselves—a better job, a better pay packet and better job security.

The government's most recent package, Skills for all Australians, will further turbocharge training in this country. It aims for an additional 375,000 students to complete qualifications over the next five years. To achieve this we need to ensure that vocational education is accessible to more Australians. That is why I am very proud to be part of the government that has committed $1.75 billion over five years for new skills reforms through the national partnerships agreement with the states. This is in addition to the money that has already been committed by the Commonwealth and delivered to the states.

I am very proud that this package will give all Australians access to a government-subsidised training place at least to certificate III level. Prerequisite courses will also be covered, including the training to provide help with literacy and numeracy, so ensuring those who have been previously cut out of education and upskilling can get access.

This package will mean that there will be more providers and more places offering subsidised opportunities to skill up more Australians. The package will be critical in opening the doors to many who have not had these opportunities before. The national training entitlement will be available to Australians from post school to the point where people enter into the aged pension, ensuring that no Australian is left behind when it comes to the opportunity to learn skills. For the first time, working-age Australians will be guaranteed access to a government-subsidised training place

Ensuring that upfront fees are not a barrier to entering training is also critical to equitable access. As I mentioned previously, South Australia is in desperate need of people with diploma-level qualifications. Therefore I was incredibly pleased—and this is something I have been talking about since I attended university—that a deferred loan scheme will now be available not only to university students but also to VET students who are studying diploma and advanced diploma courses. As with university fees, VET students will not be required to pay income-contingent loans upfront; they will be able to defer until they are earning a decent income. This was, unfortunately, missed when it was announced after the last COAG meeting, but it is a serious reform that will once again open the doors to many young people in my electorate.

But it is not just young people in my electorate who will benefit from this; I meet many older people who have decided to change what career they pursue. They do want to upskill but have not had the money. I have heard from many people who have said: 'If only I could defer this payment and if only I could get access. When I get a job I will be able to pay it back'. Now, this government is delivering the opportunity for these people to skill up.

The skills reform National Partnership Agreement with the states comes, as I said, in addition to the $7.2 billion that this government has made available to the states and territories over the next five years for the VET system. In total, therefore, the federal government will be injecting close to $9 billion dollars over the next five years to improve the training opportunities and so allow Australians to get the skills they need.

It is vital not only that training is easier for people from all walks of life to access and afford but also that the quality of the training provided is of high quality. I think this is a very important point. We need to make sure that the skills training that is being delivered is delivered in a high-quality way. That is why the government is working very closely with industry and employers to develop training solutions that get real results for Australians.

Employers must be able to trust that they will be hiring trained graduates with the skills that meet the highest industry standards and requirements. The government has already established the Australian Skills Quality Authority to promote high standards for our VET providers. As part of the new national partnership agreement reforms announced at the recent COAG, the government has pushed for further improvement in quality and will require all states and territories to implement independent assessments over the next two years. Strict criteria will be set to ensure that only quality providers with an established record can access public funding, and the states will be required to implement strategies to improve the quality of vocational education and teaching. The federal government also plans to implement the My Skills website, which will also improve access to information and support informed choice. All these reforms are critical to the quality of education provided.

I have seen in my own electorate some of the investments into skills that are really making a difference. One of the real concerns in my electorate under the previous government was that so few young people could access skills at school. We know that the previous government brought in their Australian technical colleges. There were 25 around the country, but they were not really easily accessible by the thousands of students who want to attain a VET qualification or a vocational education while at high school. So I was very proud to stand at the 2007 election and say that we were not going to make vocational training an exclusive right for only a few people in this country; we were going to roll out trades training centres to schools where the students were and where they could take an alternative path. I am so pleased now to see those rolling out in my electorate. We currently have six in operation, and a number of others have been announced.

Willunga High School, Reynella East High School, Southern Vales Christian College's Aldinga campus, Wirreanda High School, Seaford 6-12 School and Hallett Cove R-12 School all have training centres, and all are cooperating together as part of the Southern Adelaide and Fleurieu Trade School. They are exchanging students and specialising in trades and really networking up. I think it is a great model that gives students from my local electorate an opportunity while at school. The academic side of school with your normal subjects may not be the path they want to go down. I have seen some wonderful, engaged students who have chosen to finish year 12 but have done it while also doing vocational education. I was pleased to recently open the Hallett Cove trades training centre. This is a really exciting initiative that now provides an opportunity to gain qualifications in plumbing and electrotechnology. It is working with industry to deliver its program, so it is a great example of industry, school education and federal government assistance that is really delivering, once again, some great opportunities for young Australians in my electorate.

The amendment bill in the House today seeks to replace Skills Australia from 1 July 2012 with the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency and improve long-term workforce planning and development to further address skill and labour shortages and contribute to improvements in industry and workplace productivity. I think it is important to note while you are listening to the opposition speakers—they did not quite make this clear—that the move does have the backing of industry and employee representatives, who have been urging an integrated approach to tackling the skills shortage and productivity challenges. The agency will have broader scope than Skills Australia through the bill, enabling it to provide government with advice on allocation of Commonwealth funding. Further, the functions of the agency will be broadened to providing government with advice on improving productivity. It will assess research on improving productivity and analyse funding available to address workforce skills, workforce development and workforce productivity.

In conclusion I say that I think this is an important bill. It is part of a massive package that this government is delivering in skills. In moving around my electorate, I found it clear that the previous government fell asleep at the wheel when it came to skills, and it has taken the election of this government to really turbocharge skilling up Australia. I think there are so many exciting opportunities, including the deferral of loans in a HECS-style system for people studying for diplomas and advanced diplomas. This is a critical reform, as are our many others. I commend the bill to the House.