'If we don’t have apprentices, we can’t rebuild our economy'
COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on many weaknesses in our economy, especially our under-investment in vocational and trade skills.
We can now see the danger of relying on international supply chains for everything from ventilators and face masks, through to food and fuel.
This crisis will pass, but another will surely come. When it does Australia must be strong enough to stand on its own two feet.
That means a big step up in training our young. We must fundamentally change our approach to vocational education and training, because at present we are failing.
The number of TAFE enrolments across Australia has been steadily declining over recent years. For example, between 2011-12 and 2017-18, TAFE Queensland enrolments dropped by a staggering 40 per cent.
Yet at the same time around one in five young people are jobless in places like Logan, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Wide Bay and Outback Queensland.
This problem is a national trend. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Federal Government has cut $3 billion from the VET sector and let apprenticeships and training places decline by 145,000.
The fault doesn't just lie with governments. The private sector has slowly withdrawn from training young workers because it has been easier to import people with skills through the temporary visa system.
This short-term approach to skills is now hitting home. However, we do have an opportunity to turn things around. The Federal Government can invest directly in TAFE by subsidising courses and funding better facilities.
It can also provide incentives for workers to go back into training and learn new skills.
The cost of training is a major disincentive for people who are considering reskilling or upskilling, so helping people to overcome this financial hurdle is vital.
Another way the Federal Government can lead is through commitments to employing a minimum number of apprentices on infrastructure projects. This is all about using money wisely for the greatest long-term benefit to the community.
Local councils also can also employ more apprentices in their operations.
And then there are the State Governments, which are primarily responsible for the delivery of vocational education and training.
A few tweaks could lead to profound changes in the training landscape. A small increase to payroll tax, for example, could be used to create a new dedicated source of revenue for the TAFE system.
For businesses, this tax increase could be offset by offering generous payroll tax deductions for the employment of more apprentices.
Such a tax incentive would encourage businesses to support young workers and contribute to the national mission of building a more highly-skilled workforce.
It could take two years or longer for "normal" economic settings to kick back in - with the restoration of global supply chains and freedom of movement across countries.
While this will wreak terrible short-term damage to our national economy, it is also a window of opportunity to make vital changes, and to build a more resilient and sustainable country.
If our governments make the right decisions now, we can come out of this crisis in a stronger economic position than when we went into it - and better prepared to take advantage of the next boom.
Allen Hicks is the national secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.
Originally published as If we don't have apprentices, we can't rebuild our economy