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Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Page: 5060

Dr STONE (Murray) (18:28): I too wish to talk about the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012. It was announced in the 2011-12 budget just the other night that the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency will be a new agency subsuming and replacing the existing work undertaken by Skills Australia. Skills Australia was set up by the Rudd Labor government in 2008. So just four years later we have to wonder why it has found itself under the spotlight, being substantially changed in terms of its mandate. I guess it is because we did not have much action and there was not much to show for those first four years.

There is a substantial injection of funds into this new agency—$25 million was budgeted for the 2011-12 financial year. What we have to hope is that this new agency is not simply another training for training's sake exercise. Too often in Australia we have seen the unemployed, especially the Indigenous unemployed or others with a disability perhaps, put in front of course after course with no prospect of a job ever at the end of the training period.

Too often we are told that there are massive skills in demand in Australia and that there are thousands of jobs not being filled. In rural and regional Australia in particular, we have a crisis in farm succession and in finding enough agribusiness workers. We are told that there are more than 2.5 jobs for every graduate from a college which trains individuals in agricultural science or agribusiness related courses, yet the industry cannot find those 2.5 graduates for every job. So there is a real problem in Australia in that there are not enough trained individuals to meet the real opportunities in our economy; and, indeed, there are not enough individuals who are given a chance to retrain, given that they are locked into parts of Australia where there are few jobs or they are locked into areas of work which will not have much of a future after the carbon tax commences on 1 July. I have already seen in my electorate, for example, hundreds of food manufacturing jobs disappear. Individuals have been made redundant because of the additional costs to be imposed in the food manufacturing sector come 1 July. I am referring in particular to the most recent job losses from the Murray Goulburn Co-operative. Recently Coca-Cola Amatil announced job losses, and the workers at Heinz at Girgarre were told to go elsewhere when the company decided to shift offshore to New Zealand—which, of course, has only a tiny carbon tax compared to that which is to be imposed in Australia. There will be a lot of new job losses coming through the system when our economy is made less competitive after 1 July, so we are very much anticipating that an enormous training effort will be required in this country—perhaps one of the biggest new training efforts that the country has ever seen.

We know that there are a lot of disengaged youth, particularly in rural and regional Australia. In my area, up to 30 per cent of our young people are not employed. I wonder, though, how simply increasing the size of the board of Skills Australia from seven to 10 members is going to make a huge difference. There is a new emphasis on these members coming out of the trade union movement. The trade union movement has done a lot of things in the past, but one of the things it is not renowned for is retraining. We have a requirement for 250,000 skilled employees over the next five years, yet we know that the membership of the union movement is contracting across all sectors. So it is interesting that the Skills Australia board is to be boosted by more membership from the trade union movement, and it is interesting that a substantial part of the funding is to be allocated to the unions themselves.

I want to see the funding go to agencies or organisations such as those that Andrew Forrest has identified in Western Australia. He understands that unless there is the prospect of a job at the end of the training experience, the individual is not going to be quite so well engaged. The individual who perhaps has never worked before, or who has faced a lot of discrimination because of race or because of poor Australian standard English-speaking skills, is best engaged when he or she knows that there is a real job at the end of a training period—a job they want to do and a job that is accessible to them geographically.

When I was Minister for Workforce Participation, I was very proud to launch Goal 100. This was in Whyalla and it was very much the brainchild of OneSteel. They had a massive problem with local skills retention and in finding new skilled workers for their expanding mining tasks in that region. There were 79 graduates who received five months of training. This program was one of the first of its kind in Australia. It took some quite long-term unemployed men and women—some Indigenous men and women among the group—and gave them real work-related skills so they could enter various mining sector jobs in the region. It also gave them a great deal of personal development support. Some of these individuals had very difficult lives where they had to, for example, spend a lot of time caring for sick family members or had experienced family dislocation. Some had experienced alcohol and drug issues in the past. One of the conditions of the training was that the graduates be drug-free during their training period, and this was very successfully achieved by the 79 who graduated after five months of training. Those graduates knew that they were not going to march around to the Centrelink to see what was possible for them to apply for; they knew that they had an excellent job waiting for them. In fact, most of them had already had some experience in the jobs which they were to step into, having graduated from the training program. The night of their graduation was electric with anticipation, expectation and pride. Families were there, cheering on their graduates, some of whom had not completed their secondary education and some of whom had never before succeeded in completing any qualification or even had one offered to them before.

Not only was I at the graduation of the Goal 100; I was also at the launch of the program in the same TAFE facility—the South Australian TAFE facility in Whyalla. There was some nervousness and apprehension at the launch of the program. I was there with the local mayor and councillors as well as the Whyalla Economic Development Board Chief Executive Officer and OneSteel executives. There was a quite rugged mix of workers sitting there, aiming to train and get a job. For many of them it was very exciting, but they were also apprehensive. The fact that the 79 graduated and walked into work was living proof of the effectiveness of what Andrew Forrest aims to do with his programs targeting Indigenous workers in Western Australia. Andrew Forrest has said that for every job filled, two go unfilled due to the lack of job-ready Indigenous applicants for the work that is out there in the more remote parts of Western Australia. He knows the importance of training which includes theoretical and hands-on experience—real work experience—and a job offer at the end.

Too often in Australia we simply reach for a 457 visa to bring in skilled workers from overseas. We think that it is a quicker, easier and cheaper way to fill the gaps in our skilled workforce. It is not a clever way to go, because, as I mentioned before at the beginning of my remarks, more than 30 per cent of our youth are unemployed in parts of regional Australia. In parts of Indigenous Australia, where most of the population is in rural and remote areas and the people are our first Australians, unemployment is over 80 per cent.

So we have to make sure that someone such as Andrew Forrest, who has established four vocational training and employment centres—or VTECs, as he calls them—in Western Australia, is given every support from this federal government. He has called on the government to set up another 25 of these VTECs across the country. I strongly support what he sees as an essential way to go—where your training is in relationship to a real job and your training outcome, if you graduate, is real employment. I found this was the case when I was congratulating those graduates in 2006 and 2007 in Whyalla.

We have to be serious in Australia about the fact that a lot of our regional training organisations are not very adequate. Many of them are now supervising students and offering courses which are not at all rigorous so that people who do not have sufficient skill graduate. I made a comment on this in parliament just yesterday. I mentioned the fact that apprentices are paid only some $6 an hour and they are not receiving the TAFE sector training that was once expected to be very much a part of their apprenticeship. They are allowed to be fast tracked. Instead of spending four years in an apprenticeship, they can finish now in some two years via what is often called competency based accreditation, where someone from a registered training organisation simply observes them on the job—perhaps standing at a building site where they are able to point to some scaffolding or some piece of plumbing or tiling work or concreting. A photograph is taken of the outcome and a box is ticked, and that apprentice is then told that they have competency in that particular aspect of the trade.

This is not good enough for Australia, which has to have not only people with certificates or qualifications like diplomas or degrees but also the knowledge and skills behind those diplomas, degrees or certificates. There has to be confidence that, through the training that they have been given, the individual will be able to work competently in an industry sector and be able to rise to be a master tradesperson or a self-employed person employing others and in turn offering training themselves.

At the moment many people have real concerns, which was expressed through the Senate inquiry submission from the Queensland government. It was highlighted that training purchased by the states and Commonwealth is often fragmented, that there is duplication of effort and that there is poor quality in outcomes for those who undertake training. Even the ACTU have been critical of the government's approach to addressing the skills shortages, where, too often, you simply have an offshore recruitment drive rather than address the unemployed queuing for an opportunity to gain an income and get off welfare.

The new agency that is now to be funded is the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. Let us hope that the co-contribution arrangement, with business paying making according to their size contributions up to 50 per cent, will mean that those businesses demand a better outcome from this agency than they got with Skills Australia. Let us hope that, if someone receives a certificate III level or a certificate IV level in aged care, for example, that they do come out of that training genuinely skilled and with work waiting for them.

One function of this agency is the identification of skills needed in the future. We are told the resources sector will be a priority 1, with $15 million to support skills development in that area. I would argue that equally important to the resources sector is food manufacturing. We pay a lot of lip service to manufacturing, but food manufacturing is the biggest employer in Australia when it comes to value adding from plough to plate. There is $15 million to support organisations and regions that are facing structural adjustment and reform challenges, particularly in the manufacturing and tourism sectors. I would hope that those funds go into the regions. Finally, there is a catch-all of $20 million to support upskilling and skills deepening across all sectors of the economy. Twenty million dollars is not very much. Let us hope that the money gets spent appropriately and wisely and that it is targeted properly and that behind the training there are real jobs.

Debate adjourned.