Transcript of Traditional trade apprenticeships: still a trusted brand?

3 November 2020

Vocational Voices: Season 5, Episode 2

Traditional trade apprenticeships: still a trusted brand?

Ian Curry (00:00)
I think the priorities of politics, the election cycles that we go through, have heightened people's sensitivity to announcements. And we're competing for who can announce the most support for whatever the issue is. Whether it's let's rebuild manufacturing, renewable energy, whatever it happens to be. I think the sooner that we can get a sense of purpose back, why we do training contract related employment, the better. And it should be about the production of the skilled workforce that we will need to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing economy.

Steve Davis (00:37)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis and today's topic is the future of traditional trades and whether or not they're relevant in the modern workplace. Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director, NCVER. Hello, Simon.

Simon Walker (01:01)
Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (01:01)
And Ian Curry, National Coordinator - Skills, Training & Apprenticeships with the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, or AMWU. Hello, Ian.

Ian Curry (01:10)
Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (01:11)
I'm going to start by taking us back to the sixties. There was a Cat Stevens song called, "But I Might Die Tonight," and he laments his plight. He says, "I don't want to work away doing just what they all say, "Work hard, boy, and you'll find one day, you'll have a job like mine." Because I know for sure nobody should be that poor." Now, there's actually a lot captured in that lyric. There's a lament about having to do work at a time when there was much work to choose from. And there's also an assumption that blue collar work, or trade, with a long steady career path will be safe, but destroy one's soul.

Steve Davis (01:50)
So let's fast forward to 2020, and the federal government in its latest budget is hoping a 50% subsidy for new apprenticeships will get people back to work. People who will be grateful for having a new pathway out of unemployment or low employment due to the disruptions of COVID-19. Our focus today is the future of traditional trades, in particular, their relevance in the modern workplace. And relevance goes hand in hand with the sentiment and perception. Ian, from where you sit with the AMWU, how do you read public sentiment towards jobs normally associated with apprenticeship pathways?

Ian Curry (02:30)
I think there's generally very strong support. We do a lot of polling amongst our members, polling amongst the general population, and there are two brands that stand out as being trusted brands around the economy. And they're TAFE and apprenticeships. So that's sort of traditional vocational educational training pathway combined with the employment related pathway that apprenticeships are strongly supported brands. I think we've seen some issues associated with how we fund, issues associated with the politics that have taken a bit of bark off some of those two brands, but there remained very strong support in the community for traditional trade apprenticeships and TAFE as a means of delivery.

Steve Davis (03:20)
So Ian, from where you sit, do you think we've moved on from that sentiment captured in that Cat Stevens song about begrudgingly thinking it's just a tyranny of boredom that lies ahead on that pathway?

Ian Curry (03:33)
I think we probably shifted in the seventies. I'm a child of the seventies in a sense, I started an apprenticeship in 1978, and I think we'd moved on by then into a sense of traditional trades being a genuine career. Providing work that was interesting, providing work that was increasing in terms of its skill requirement, providing a bit of aspiration to those that were able to secure an apprenticeship. And in the main apprenticeships were quite readily available. I sat an entrance test for a couple of apprenticeships that I applied for. One of them had 1200 applicants for 45 positions. And the other one had 1500 applicants for about 50 apprenticeship positions. So they were sought after.

Steve Davis (04:26)
That is definitely an appetite. Absolutely. Simon, you've lived here in SA and over in the West, you've been privy to various studies and reports into apprenticeships and traineeships. Do you sense also that our world's sort of grown up and gotten over the old idea that blue collar occupations are somehow of lower status than others? And I will note for the record, I'm deliberately asking this at a time when we've all been reminded that most essential workers come from these sectors.

Simon Walker (04:55)
The issue of status is a complex one. But one starting point is to see how the issue of status plays out when young people are making choices at school. And in particular, whether they're choosing a vocational education or a university pathway. And I'm going to refer to a recent report based on the Shergold Review into senior secondary school pathways, which made some interesting observations.

Simon Walker (05:20)
One of them was that there's an undue focus on the ATAR and it has a distortionary impact on educational expectations in which a preference for vocational education and training is perceived as second class. I'm now talking about the educational pathway. And they also observed that there was a recent survey that found about 50% of students had a very strong understanding of the pathway to university. But in fact, only about 16% of students had a good to strong understanding of other pathways, including vocational education, apprentices and trainees.

Simon Walker (05:56)
And what I found probably most fascinating when you bring that together to your question is they also observed that while fewer school students hold aspirations for vocational education and university as an educational pathway, there is actually a high interest in VET related jobs than in the pathways themselves.

Steve Davis: (06:16)
Well, that's fascinating, because only earlier today I was at Urrbrae Agricultural High School here in Adelaide and the principal, Joslyn Fox, was talking about students being hoovered up, if you like, into industry almost before they finished school. In fact, I asked her about where she sees the prospects for students who are conscious of these options.

Joslyn Fox (06:39)
I think from an Urrbrae perspective, we value tertiary and vocational education equally. And that's made very clear to parents. It's made clear to students. And our industry contacts make it very clear to students that they are a valuable part of the future workforce. So I think yes, it is shifting. I think it does depend what school you're in. I think the context of the school and the environment that you're in determines that a great deal. Rural areas definitely see vocational education as far more valuable than perhaps metropolitan, where you've got that easy access to universities. And rural areas are still loathe for students to go to university, it's so expensive, such an expensive exercise. It's a total relocation. Whereas vocational education is something that's very, very accessible.

Simon Walker (07:26)
Based on my experience with the schools is it is very much driven by the leadership of the school. So if the school principal vests a lot of interest and attention in those vocational education pathways, they can get some outstanding results. But it is very much driven by the school. And perhaps to some degree, the demographic in the school.

Steve Davis (07:43)
Joslyn certainly strikes me as that sort of principal. Ian, can I turn back now to the traditional system of apprenticeships and the emergence of traineeships that we've seen, you're probably the best person to turn to summarise the key elements between those two systems, apprenticeships and traineeships. How do you define them?

Ian Curry (08:03)
Well, I mean, essentially, they're both the same thing. The training contract that underpins both is exactly the same. There are slight differences in funding arrangements and some of the regulation. Traditional trade apprenticeships are geared to regulating who can enter the trade. For instance, employers can't generally speaking engage a young person in an occupation declared to be a trade unless they are an apprentice. Where the same is not true of traineeships.

Ian Curry (08:32)
The reforms to the training system in the eighties and the early nineties were intended to bring the strengths of the apprenticeship pathway to other occupations that weren't traditionally regulated as trades. One could argue that political decisions around promoting traineeships as employment subsidies have damaged that brand. And I think we're still struggling to repair some of the damage that has been made.

Ian Curry (08:58)
And we can see how that plays out in the sudden declines in traineeship commencements as soon as incentive subsidies are reduced, such as in hospitality not all that long ago. So they're perhaps not seeing the whole strength as an employment learning pathway as apprenticeships when you apply them to traineeships these days because of those funding implications and the strengths of subsidies and incentives.

Simon Walker (09:29)
In terms of distinguishing between the two pathways, and I take on board exactly what Ian just said, but apprenticeships are typically related to those traditional occupations, such as carpentry, automotive mechanic, hairdressing. And they usually take three to four years. The traineeships came in as the job market was changing and are more focused on the service sector occupations. So things like hospitality, retail, and business services. And typically are done within a year or two.

Steve Davis (09:57)
Ian, in this current era where anyone thinks, and rightfully expects, they could do anything they want, does that model of that restricted pathway of entry into any of these particular trades, do you think that's still relevant in 2020 and beyond?

Ian Curry (10:12)
Well, it's a restriction that is intended to defend the interests of the young person. So if you are to enter into a trade, a young person, you need to be under a training contract to ensure that you get the training and the work experience and workplace practice that's required to make you a competent trades person.

Ian Curry (10:33)
So setting that aside, there are any number of opportunities for people to reach into that sector. But it all depends on economic circumstances, the demand for it. And in some cases, well, we'll see, I suppose, from the budget of 50% wage subsidies for apprentices. My concern, I suppose, is that's only for the first 12 months. So we'll see whether there is an uptick in the number of apprenticeships on offer. Because that is the key.

Ian Curry (11:04)
Apprenticeships are the most demand driven model that we have, the production of the skilled workers that the economy needs. It means that an employer has to put their hand in their pocket and fund a person to learn the trade. So they reflect the ups and downs of the economy. But they are still the best method of producing a skilled trades person. And I would posit that that is the point of an apprenticeship.

Ian Curry (11:31)
It's not an employment subsidy. It's not a temporary alternative to New Start or the Job Seeker or Job Keeper. The purpose of our VET system is the production of skilled and adaptable workers who go on to employment in the economy. And apprenticeships and traineeships done well are a very good way of achieving that goal.

Steve Davis: (11:52)
Are you getting the sense in the discussion about this subsidy, that some of that nuance is getting lost in the public discourse, Ian? That they are being exchanged for jobs, etc, as opposed to that focus on a structured approach to training?

Ian Curry (12:13)
I don't think there's any doubt about that. I think the priorities of politics, the election cycles that we go through, have heightened people's sensitivity to announcements. And we're competing for who can announce the most support for whatever the issue is. Whether it's let's rebuild manufacturing, renewable energy, whatever it happens to be, even coal mining. These announcements are driven by cycles. And I think the sooner that we can get a sense of purpose back, why we do training contract related employment, the better. And it should be about the production of building a workforce that we will need to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing economy.

Steve Davis (13:00)
Can you think of any valid arguments for making some of these systems less formal or less regulated in relation to apprenticeships?

Ian Curry (13:09)
Well, I don't think that the nature of regulation around apprenticeships is any more onerous than anywhere else. Other than to ensure that a dodgy fly by night training provider races into the market and attracts a whole pile of people on the promise that they will end up with a trade qualification and then doesn't deliver. I mean, if the regulation is about preventing those sorts of things, then I'm all for that. We regulate many things. Regulation is, not of itself, a bad thing. Properly done, regulation should support the aims of the population and the economy and everything else.

Ian Curry (13:48)
I mean, we should all be pushing in the one direction to provide young people with the opportunities to realise their ambitions, to provide what the economy needs by way of skilled workers, to educate people to a standard that meets the needs of the economy, and to ensure that work is safe and all those other things that go with that. So I don't accept an argument that they are onerously regulated.

Ian Curry (14:16)
I think those who would have us believe that any form of regulation is just red tape that ought to be swept away should spend a bit of time in an industry that suffers from a poor safety record, for instance. Or should be the victim of a VET Fee Help dodgy loan. I mean, there are many reasons for regulation. And governments don't do it for the sake of it. It's there for our protection and we should welcome it.

Steve Davis (14:45)
There's been all sorts of reviews, and I've been involved in some of them personally, and we've done some recent research into this area. And the issue of flexibility in the apprenticeship system does arise quite constantly. But when you probe harder with the people that have traditionally employed apprentices, so these are the people on the ground actually employing apprentices, they'll make all sorts of suggestions about how it could be freed up or made more flexible. But they end up pretty much in the same spaces.

Steve Davis (15:17)
They actually like the system just the way it is. Because a lot of the elements of, what we're calling in this conversation, regulation, are actually just frameworks that actually work quite well for employers. Including the industrial relations framework that underpinned it, the concessional wages that apply for the early years of their apprenticeship, the structure of having formal education integrated with employment. And to go to Ian's point, the idea there is you end up with a highly skilled worker at the end of it.

Steve Davis (15:45)
So yes, there's a bit of white noise around the regulation. And there'll be some groups of employers who want to kind of free it up. But the people who have actually participated in this system kind of like it just the way it is.

Ian Curry (15:58)
I think there's a reason why people like it as it is, because it builds certainty into the system. And having endless flexibility, when you're not in a position to exploit that flexibility, I mean, that's the key for me. Traditional trades are around traditional forms of work organisation and job design. We want to know that a boiler maker can form and shape metal. We want to know that a carpenter can perform their work in the construction industry or wherever it is that they're employed.

Ian Curry (16:29)
So there is a certain consistency about the work that these trades do. So of course there's a certain consistency about the skills that they need for it. So we can't generally speaking exploit the extent of flexibility that exists in current training package approaches, making it more flexible just means we're exploiting less of the flexibility that's available.

Steve Davis (16:54)
I'd like to take us back to a comment Ian made earlier and put it to you, Simon, in the first place. Because I confess, I was a little bit euphoric hearing about the 50% subsidy, thinking this is great. But that euphoria has been tempered somewhat by what Ian just said. It's for 12 months. Let's see what happens to that uptick at that point. And to make sure that it's sustained. Because that aside, not everyone always finishes their apprenticeships. So can you, from the data you've seen, tell us why is this so? Why do some people not go the full distance?

Simon Walker (17:31)
Well, just before I answer that, and to follow on from the conversation about the subsidies, the focus of the government has clearly been on stimulating employment, given the extraordinary circumstances we're in. So the idea that they would stimulate a specific type of employment of an apprenticeship or a traineeship, which of course has an educational outcome as well. Actually I don't have any problem with.

Simon Walker (17:55)
The other thing to note about that, it's actually to arrest the decline that would naturally occur in this incredible environment. So we may not see growth above normal levels, but it's trying to stabilise the system. And make sure we have a pipeline of skilled workers into the future. So I think there are quite a few dimensions about this policy position that's been taken with the wage subsidy.

Simon Walker (18:19)
Having said that, around completions, and this hasn't really changed much over the years, we just did a survey called the Apprentice and Trainee Experience and Destination Survey last year for the apprentices in 2018. And one of the things we ask is, what was the main reason for not completing an apprenticeship. And they're given a set of choices which are grouped into three themes, they're employment related, training related or personal reasons.

Simon Walker (18:49)
Now, for the traditional trade apprentices, which is what we're talking about today, about three quarters responded that they were there for employment related reasons. And I would have thought that was self-evident. There are about a dozen choices that they're given. And so there's no major majority reason. But the ones that are highlighted are, they didn't get on with their boss or their co-workers or more broadly their workplace. Or they lost their job and were made redundant, which is of course happens at any time.

Simon Walker (19:19)
Of the other types of reasons that also were put forward. Things like the pay was too low, the poor working conditions. But by and large, it's to do with whether they really felt suited to do the job in the first place. That's their main reason.

Simon Walker (19:37)
And just to add to that, sorry, is about a third of all apprentices don't complete after the first year. So that's the highest level of attrition, in that first year.

Steve Davis (19:48)
But on that reason, that I don't feel suited to this job, isn't that a good thing? That is part and parcel of the apprenticeship structure, is getting that sense now before there's been way too much investment in that person and by that person into that pathway?

Simon Walker (20:04)
Yeah. And we've got to remember, it's a job for generally speaking young people. And they don't necessarily know what they don't know at that stage. And let's face it, people leave jobs, and not just apprenticeships, for all sorts of employment related reasons. So we shouldn't take too much account of some of those things. Because they should be self-evident in many ways.

Steve Davis (20:24)
Ian, one of the reasons I'm really happy you're part of this recording today is, yes, people know you're part of the AMWU, but you're also known for speaking out when you see things that need correction or need to be challenged. What is not working at the moment within the apprenticeship system, from your perspective, if anything? And if so, how urgently does it need to be addressed?

Ian Curry (20:50)
Well, I think my views about the VET sector and apprenticeships have some commonalities in that regard. That sense of purpose, I think, is incredibly important to try and undo some of the wastage. We survey apprentices as well, and the answers that we get, in terms of the reasons they don't complete, or the things that aren't working, are a little different from the reports that Simon's quoting from.

Ian Curry (21:20)
In the main, they are often employment related reasons. But an employment related reason is also not getting the workplace practice, the on-the-job training, that the apprenticeship is supposed to give them. And that is often seen as an employment related reason for not completing.

Ian Curry (21:42)
We have a mantra within the AMWU that the purpose of the VET system is the production of skilled and adaptable workers who go on to employment in the economy in an area related to their training. Now there's a lot in that. But if our VET sector is producing people who go on to employment in a completely different environment from the one that they trained for, I'm not sure we should be calling that a raging success.

Ian Curry (22:10)
So I think that sense of fitness for purpose of traditional manufacturing definition of quality, if we're not producing people who are fit for the purpose they trained for, by putting the emphasis on vocational, rather than education and training, then industry will not get the skilled workers that it needs.

Ian Curry (22:32)
And we also need a sense of purpose by creating a cohort of employers in the economy who are both informed and demanding consumers of what they need. They need to be better able to articulate what the work requirements of workers that they're hoping to train will be. So that people like me, I'm the chair of the Manufacturing and Engineering Industry Reference Committee writing the training package for manufacturing and engineering, so that we can start to ensure that the products that we produce around which the training system delivers are fit for that purpose as well.

Ian Curry (23:13)
I don't think our ability to analyse skills requirements at the workplace level is strong enough. If it were, we would have more demanding consumers. Employers would be stamping their feet to make sure that the people that were being trained were getting the skills and the practical experience required to make them effective workers.

Ian Curry (23:35)
So I think raising the bar in terms of the customer and the consumer, and then the apprentice or the student is the customer of the training system, that the consumer of the skills is employers. And I would argue that perhaps they're well behind the interests of training providers in many senses. And that's a function not of bad training providers, it's a function of incoherent funding systems, and fragmentation and transactional approaches to funding. So I'm not being overly critical of training providers. I'm just saying that the system is not preferencing the interests of the customer and the consumer.

Simon Walker (24:18)
Just by the by, while training related reasons wasn't high on the survey list, where it was mentioned, it was on the job training that was the single biggest training related reason. So, Ian, we're not completely out of whack there.

Ian Curry (24:33)
No, no. Can I just say on that. When we had to do that second round of AISC inspired consultation about MEM (Manufacturing and Engineering Training Package) release 2.0, the feedback that we got from employers, some employers that were hand-picked to participate in those consultations by some of your former colleagues, sat on this focus group and said, "Our job is not to train apprentices. Our job is to carry out work for profit." And I'm thinking, well, the training contract says that it is exactly your job to provide work experiences that are relevant and appropriate to the completion of the trade. And the number one obligation as an employer under a training contract is to employ and train the apprentice in accordance with the training plan. So we have lost a little focus. And we have taken a bit of bark off the status of or the importance.

Ian Curry (25:26)
When I started my apprenticeship in 1978, the first thing I had to do was turn up to an evening ceremony, a ritual signing of the indenture, with my parents. And I was 17 years old. I was the oldest person who was signing off an indenture. At that time, I was quite old. But you had to be dressed for the occasion.

Steve Davis (25:53)
Did you get the tie on?

Ian Curry (25:53)
I had a tie on, I had a suit on. And most of the kids that were there did as well. And their parents took it very seriously. And that level of gravitas has gone. And in part, I think that's because the training contract brand has been damaged by poor behaviour by governments who have encouraged people to see these as employment subsidies rather than a way of building a future workforce. And that saddens me terribly.

Steve Davis (26:21)
In closing, Ian, just another aspect of this topic that we're finishing on. You mentioned that one of the reasons for apprentices not completing is not getting the on-the-job training component of their apprenticeship. Given that we've got this subsidy in play at the moment, do you think businesses and training organisations at present are ready to handle this influx of apprentices and do it well and see it through?

Ian Curry (26:50)
I think it will be variable. But the demands that are confronting us for skilled workers, whether it's naval shipbuilding, renewable energy, or any of the other industries that appear to be on the up and up, the demand will force I think a stronger focus on producing the skilled workers that we need.

Ian Curry (27:14)
I mean, the issues of importance for apprentices in our survey, say working conditions, poor quality training, lack of proper mentoring, the cost of tools. And interestingly, low apprentice pay is fifth on that list of top issues of importance for apprentices.

Ian Curry (27:32)
I think that demand and the very need for skilled workers will see an increase in employers lifting their game in terms of providing for those apprentices that are looking for apprenticeships for the purpose of becoming a skilled worker that can then work for them. And I think that's the key here, is to provide an environment rather than just subsidies that values the product of the system, not the process.

Steve Davis (27:59)
Ian Curry, what a magnificent note to finish on. Thank you for taking time out to join Vocational Voices today.

Ian Curry (28:07)
My pleasure.

Steve Davis (28:08)
And Simon Walker, thank you.

Simon Walker (28:10)
Thank you.

Steve Davis (28:12)
Vocational Voices is produced by NCVER on behalf of the Australian government and state and territory governments, with funding provided through the Australian government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. For further information, please visit ncver.edu.au.