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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 17

Senator BUCKLAND (1:40 PM) —Since the beginning the Howard government has failed to come to grips with the importance of vocational education and training. It is an issue that it has not been able to successfully deal with throughout the course of government. If we look at Australian industry today, we can only conclude that the Howard Liberal government has failed the basic skills test. For years now, despite numerous calls from industry and calls from the secondary, vocational and tertiary education sectors, the government has allowed Australia's work force skills and potential work force skills to fall to a new critically low level. This failure has had a marked impact on the ability of small, medium and large industry to plan for the future and to develop and expand.

I am reliably told by those in the vocational training sector that skills as a productivity driver have declined by 75 per cent in 10 years. It is now clear for everyone to see that we have critical skills shortages in key trades and industries such as engineering, electrical, mechanical, bricklaying, plumbing, metal fitting and fabrication, child care, aged care and nursing. We also have a critical shortage of skilled workers in the meat industry. The Productivity Commission has found that Australia needs more skilled workers and greater skills growth if we are to address the country's skill shortages, to improve the standards of living and to remain internationally competitive. But, because the Howard government has failed to fund enough places in TAFE each year, tens of thousands of Australians wanting training have been turned away.

The greatest growth in new apprenticeship schemes has occurred in areas where there are no skills shortages. One study has found that between 20 and 30 per cent of new apprentices receive inadequate training and about half the people who do not finish their new apprenticeship say it is because they feel they are being used as cheap labour instead of being trained for the trade they wish to pursue. It makes me think that the government has more focus on addressing industry needs by introducing unfair dismissal laws rather than on providing real training and education for the existing and the prospective work forces.

Prior to coming to this place I spent many years on the board of a TAFE institute. I saw many changes there, but the most startling changes came in those first few months after the Howard government came to office. It was almost like night following day, the changes were so stark. There were changes in attitude and direction and there was a lack of information. The emphasis moved from one of successful training completion to one of asking what institutes could achieve for status and numbers. But the funding was not there to provide what the sector believed they were seeking. Even today there is confusion within the TAFE sector as to their future role. That is not because they have failed. It is because, firstly, they are not getting the funding and, secondly, they are not getting direction from the federal government.

Senator Santoro's contribution earlier was particularly helpful because it told me more about the new institutes of technology than I have been able to find out from other sources. I think there will be an opportunity to speak about those institutes at some future time. In my contribution to the address-in-reply I said I was somewhat warmed by the thought of these new institutes, but if they are at the cost of an effective TAFE system then I wonder what this is all about. Is this just a bit of smoke and mirrors by the government to fudge their failure with training?

This is an important area for our consideration. I cannot see where the government is going with it. As I said, Senator Santoro's contribution was somewhat helpful. Obviously, he has a lot more information on the subject than has been made generally available. I will read his speech at today's conclusion to try and gain a little more from it. A worrying factor in his contribution was that rewards might be based on the success of students, that there might be bonus schemes for instructors. I do not really know what that means, but I am sure he would be happy to help me work my way through it.

It is interesting to note that the Australian Industry Group found recently that currently there are 18,000-21,000 unfilled vacancies in industry for tradespeople. These vacancies were brought about by people not being sufficiently trained. There are not enough people with skills of a sufficient quality to perform tasks for those seeking work to be done. The situation is now very stark in heavy industry where the emphasis has been on the core business of an organisation and doing away with tradespeople and maintenance people—just bringing in flying squads or contract workers. Industry are now finding that they do not have enough people with the right skills coming through the gates for shutdowns, for major repairs and for ongoing maintenance. The skills are clearly not there.

Prior to coming to this place I was also involved in a group training scheme. I had a lot of time for this scheme, where young people took on apprenticeships with more than one employer, and thought it might be the way forward. But as time went on we found that—and it was not through lack of effort by the group training schemes but through the nature of the industry—people were not getting sufficient skills for specific industries. If a large industry is not getting people trained properly in, say, fitting, turning, plumbing or carpentry to suit all the sectors, it will have jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. People do not acquire sufficient skills to do the work that they are called in to do. Industry is now suffering from that. That revolution was brought about by industry itself. The problem we have is that there are not enough people to do the work.

What is more important, according to AiG, is that the number of traditional apprenticeships has remained largely unchanged since 1996 when the Howard government came to office. According to the department of employment, vacancies for skilled tradespersons have increased by a staggering 54 per cent over the last three years. There is not the number of people there to do the work. The figures rise quite sharply in key industries such as the metal trades, automotive, electrical and construction industries. In fact, they are rising every day and work is being deferred because there are not sufficiently skilled people to do the work. People can use backdoor tradespeople who tell them they have all the skills in the world when, in fact, they have none at all. Recently I was caught up in a situation like that, so I know that it is going on. Someone came to do a job for me and, when I asked about his business and activities, I determined that this fellow was not all that he had cracked himself up to be. The work is still waiting to be done.

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research say that, since 1999, there has been a massive 22 per cent drop in apprenticeships in the traditional trades. That is incredible. It is a worrying situation. I come from the traditional trades area and I have seen at first-hand the need for those skills. Only one in three apprenticeships were in the traditional trades field for the June 2004 quarter compared with 42 per cent five years earlier.

It is local businesses that are suffering, because there is now a shortage of about 20,000 skilled workers, as I said before, in sectors such as carpentry, construction, manufacturing and mining. At one time you could say, `I won't go and do a job because it's too far from a capital city.' That excuse no longer applies because of changed transportation needs and the manner in which you can travel to and from a job. The shortage is occurring because we do not have trained people to do the work. AiG says that over the next five years 175,000 people are expected to leave the traditional trades, while only 70,000 will enter those trades. So there will be a shortfall of over 100,000 skilled workers because of natural attrition and because of workers seeking alternative career paths and thus moving from one industry to another.

It is a legacy of this government that we have reached our current predicament so quickly. Everything that has been put in place over many years has been destroyed. It worries me that a government can be so blind to the real needs of this country. It pretends to stand up for industry and says it will get tough on industrial relations law; in fact, the real issues that have to be dealt with involve those people who are at the work sites and those young people who are trying to get training. Money is required to provide training for those people.

The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 amends the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act by limiting funding to the vocational education and training sector. It will reduce the level of funding for vocational education provided to ANTA—and we have heard about the destruction of ANTA—for distribution to the states and territories in 2004. Funding will fall from $1.36 billion to $1.31 billion. This is a reflection of the Howard government's failure to understand the needs of our country and of people trying to enter the work force in order to fill the shortages that are obviously there.

The bill seeks to appropriate up to $1.154 billion in funds for vocational education and training to be distributed by the states and territories in 2005. The bill represents another reminder that the Howard government cannot be trusted when it comes to the education and training of Australians. The Howard government slashed $240 million from the VET sector in its first two budgets. The government should spell out what the new technical colleges will do. We need to know—Senator Santoro in his speech helped a little in this regard—whether these colleges will duplicate what is already provided by the TAFE sector. We need to know whether people will be fast-tracked into trades having received little training but having received a big certificate to say that they have done some training. Will the training be of the same quality and lead to the same level of ability that currently applies? Will the new institutes replace the current TAFE sector or will they simply represent another avenue of competition and of putting training in the hands of the private sector? We do not know the answers to those questions. They have not been spelled out for us.

At the same time that all these things are going on, business is crying out for more skilled staff, and there is a major shortage of TAFE places. It seems to me that the government needs to re-examine exactly where it is coming from and going to in relation to the training of tradespeople. The blame for all the disasters we are experiencing now—insufficient tradespeople, not being able to get people to do work and high levels of job vacancies in the trades area—rests with the government and its inability to accommodate the needs of industry. My friend the member for Hindmarsh, Steve Georganas, in his first speech in the other place a couple of weeks ago, outlined the real problems we have in South Australia with the construction of a new airport terminal. There is a great shortage of plasterers, fitters, plumbers and carpenters. Excessive wages are being paid in order to try and attract people to do this work.

People in the TAFE sector give a very clear indication that they are not sure where their future lies. They have put in the effort to build a quality, first-rate training organisation that is the talk of the rest of the world. However, through the creation of these new institutes, it seems that the government is seeking to undermine them and take from them the very skills that they have built up in the area of training in this country.

Debate interrupted.