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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5633

Senator HOGG (6:05 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 holds a special attraction for me. Having worked in the retail industry and spent a long time participating in the industry at the organisational level as an organiser or industrial officer or as the Assistant Secretary or Secretary of the SDA in Queensland, I have experienced problems associated with school-to-work transitional programs and also, through serving on various boards, with programs involving TAFE.

I particularly want to say that my difficulties with many of these programs go back to 1978. At that stage, there was a program known as the `sweet pea' scheme—the Special Youth Employment Training Program— which was meant to assist young people in gaining employment. Unfortunately, that program was invariably exploited by employers as a source of cheap labour. They would engage young people and give them bright prospects of employment. These young people would become very enthusiastic, only to find out that as the government subsidy ran out so did their employment, and a new batch would replace them. On that basis, I have a degree of cynicism in this area.

I am not completely a cynic, because I do admit that there are good outcomes in this area. But, having worked for a long period of time—and I think 25 years in the retail industry is a long time—I know some of the pitfalls that exist there. These pitfalls were alluded to by my colleague Senator Buckland, who was undoubtedly referring to the industries that he is familiar with. Nonetheless, they are there in the retail industry as well, and I think it is worth while putting on the record today some of those concerns.

If one looks at the labour market statistics, one finds that the retail industry is a particularly large employer—of all the sectors, it is in the top five; in fact, it is No. 1. Most importantly, if one looks at the age break-up in employment based on the November 2001 statistics, one finds that in the order of 50.3 per cent of employment in the retail industry is focused in the age group between 15 and 19 years of age. These people are the most vulnerable and most susceptible to being exploited, because this is where not all but the majority of money under vocational education and training would be focused and, for people who are seeking transition from school to work, VET undoubtedly plays a significant part in giving them an opportunity to have some long and lasting employment.

The importance of the Vocational Education and Training in Schools scheme falls into two broad areas: firstly, it acquaints the student with the world of work and, secondly, it equips them with the capacity to seek and obtain employment post school in a way which gives recognition to the value of their Vocational Education and Training in Schools achievements and qualifications. That is terribly important to these young people. It does two things: it gives them social skills and it equips them with achievements and qualifications for bona fide employment opportunities into the future. According to a past submission of my organisation, the SDA:

There is widespread concern in industry (both employers and unions) that VETIS—

Vocational Education and Training in Schools—

students, whilst having a comparable qualification, do not have comparable skills and abilities to others with the same qualification who have obtained their qualification post school, whilst part of the paid work force.

So there is a diminution of the value of the training. That, of course, is a concern. One of the reasons why some employers seek to exploit the labour of these young people is that the training does not necessarily gain the recognition that it should. There is no doubt, though, that the training that is provided must conform to the Australian Quality Training Framework and the relevant national training package. It is unrealistic to expect that the industry will embrace students whose training is not in line with training packages. Again, that comes out of the submission—a very good submission, I might add—that my organisation has made in times past. The submission says:

There is widespread concern at industry level that many of those delivering VETIS do not meet the trainer and/or assessor requirements set out in the Training Package.

There is also widespread concern that teachers often lack understanding of the workplace and the industry concerned.

That is where I have a particular concern in respect of the retail industry. In the retail industry, as one of my colleagues described in this debate before, a churning process takes place because of a lack of understanding of the retailers and the retail industry itself—not all retailers; one must be quite fair. There are some very good retailers out there who seek to do the right thing by those students, who do seek to give them a realistic opportunity, but there are also the exploiters. Unfortunately, when it comes to a debate such as this, one tends to focus upon those who exploit the system rather than on those who use the system wisely and in a responsible manner. There is clearly considerable concern as to whether the current system is producing consistent quality outcomes. This is in part due to the lack of funds; this government has failed to provide them in this area. The states, we are aware, are pulling their weight; they are doing their share. But this government, as always, has been behind the eight ball.

Focusing now on my concern about employment prospects and the way in which these people can from time to time be churned, I want to return to the SDA submission and look at a couple of specific quotes that I think sum up in a nutshell the way young people in this 15 to 19 age bracket, which we all concerned about, can be treated from time to time. The submission says:

In many instances students are compelled to complete their on the job training/work at peak operation times.

So what is meant to be a program through which they are getting vocational education and training turns out to be in many ways nothing more than subsidised employment. The submission cites the situation in Victoria at the time:

... school students can complete their on-the-job experience working late nights, public holidays and weekends.

If one knows anything about the retail industry, one knows that late night trading, public holidays and weekends are the times of highest density of trade. One can understand a responsible union such as the SDA becoming very concerned to see that these young people, who are seeking to gain qualifications which will give them a long and lasting career, are being used at times when others might be gainfully employed in the industry and that these young people are really nothing more than substitute labour for bona fide employees who could be earning a living and making an income out of the retail industry. The submission goes on:

Although this may be advantageous in limited circumstances, it gives little opportunity for structured on the job learning.

That is particularly critical in the retail industry. The submission continues:

On occasions VETIS becomes little more than a source of cheap labour for employers.

The concern is there. It is a long and a lasting concern. It is not something that has just cropped up in the last five or 10 years. The submission goes on:

If the student is not being paid for their work or being paid only a nominal amount such as in Victoria where work placement is paid at $5 per day, the attraction of cheap labour is even greater. In particular it is an encouragement to unscrupulous employers to be able to only provide work placements at times when they are required to pay normal employees penalty rates.

This is a real concern. It is not a manufactured concern. It is a concern that I have had a personal association with. We, as an organisation—and I say we because I am still the president of the Queensland branch of the SDA—have made representations to employers to desist from these practices. It is proper in this debate to draw attention to this issue. Whilst one is not trying to label every employer as fitting into this particular category, one must necessarily draw attention to those who seek to exploit the funds that are rightly supplied to deliver proper training to 15- to 19-year-olds. The submission goes on:

It should be a clearly spelt out responsibility of the school to organise proper work placement for students. Schools, teachers and students and employers need to clearly understand and implement the purpose of work placement.

The principle of normal work being counted for VETIS purposes should be supported but where this does occur then the student should be paid the award rate for the job.

In other words, there should be no avenue of exploitation. One is not opposed to the system—there are great merits in the system, as I have said—but one seeks to stamp out the exploiters. The submission goes on:

It is essential that school to work participants receive genuine training with an appropriate range of tasks and not spend most of their work time performing routine work such as working on a register during peak trading times.

In other words, it is about providing these people with real skills. There is a need for real skills and a skilled work force. Having a productive work force works for both the employer and the employee. It enables the employer to make a reasonable profit, pay a fair and just wage, and give reasonable conditions to the employees. As I said, this matter is a particular concern and attention needs to be drawn to it. The only other statement along the same lines in the submission which I would refer to is this:

Schools often struggle to convince employers to provide structured work place training opportunities for students. Often, where such opportunities are provided, adequate supervision, mentoring and appropriate structured on-job training, especially across all the competencies in the Training Package qualification, is not provided.

That is a real concern as well. There is a need to ensure that there is adequate supervision, proper mentoring and appropriately structured on-the-job training across all competencies; if there is not, then the scheme is a fraud. Again, I am not suggesting that that is the case in all instances. I am suggesting that, unless those things are there, visible and transparent, the system fails the very people it is designed to help. If they are not there, then the VETIS scheme is nothing more than a source of cheap labour. The recurrent theme is there. This is not something that is said lightly. It is something that is said because of vast experience with this type of program over a long period of time. The submission goes on:

In some cases this is due to inadequate commitment by employers but in others it is due to employers not understanding their obligations, employers not being adequately briefed by schools and not being given appropriate support mechanisms by schools.

This is not simply an opportunity to kick employers to death. That is not the aim of my participation in this debate today. The aim of my participation is to clearly stake out an area that has been of grave concern in the retail industry over a long period of time. Problems have been encountered not just in the state of Queensland, where I come from, but in states and territories throughout Australia.

In the second reading amendment that my colleague Senator Carr has put before the chamber today he asks the Senate to condemn the government for:

(a) failing to develop comprehensive transition strategies to assist young people, thereby abandoning at least 205,300 15 to 19 years olds, placing them at risk of not making a successful transition from school and work ...

That is so important, because not everyone is an academic. Not everyone is going to end up at the University of Queensland or the James Cook University in my state. I have a young family: I have a 17-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old. The 17-year-old is about to leave school. I believe the 17-year-old will, at the end of the day, end up at university, but not every child in her class is destined to do that. Many of the children do not want to go to university, do not have the academic skills or, in some instances, cannot afford it. The importance of the VET program to those people cannot be underestimated in any way. I have spoken with my daughter, Louise, about this from time to time, and she has told me of the experiences that many of the young people that she mixes with have in these programs. Many of them have good experiences but those good experiences are because of good employers. One should not underestimate that there are bad experiences because employers misuse a right that is given to them to assist them in helping young people and to assist them in running their business. I commend Senator Carr's second reading amendment to the Senate.