Skill shortages are having a major effect on industry in both metropolitan and regional areas. This of course seems surprising following an era in which politicians have framed Australia as a “clever country”, a “knowledge nation”, in which we have more than 500,000 people presently studying in tertiary institutions and in which the retention rates in secondary schools have surged.
But the problem is academic smarts are only worth so much in a world in which we still need plumbers, electricians, carpenters and the like.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the impending shortage of skilled tradespeople. As parents have ushered kids towards the university campus - via expensive private school educations - Australia has been left wanting.
Indeed, when both John Howard and the ACTU are talking about the emerging crisis in the trades, the problem must be as clear as a spring day.
A recent ACTU paper tells us that as 170,000 tradespeople leave the workforce over the next 5 years, only 40,000 will enter it. And for all the time, effort and money poured into the “New Apprenticeships” scheme, it is in the traditional trades that the shortages are greatest.
So how did we get to this point?
Former prime ministerial contender and now professor at Macquarie University, John Hewson, laments Australia’s lost training culture, arguing that employers have wrongly come to perceive training as a cost they are unwilling to meet. He then goes on to argue that business has been too indignant for its own good, in that business simply expects government to foot the training bill. Bottom-line types refuse to do anything unless it involves a tax-break or some other incentive. On the other hand, governments have placed too many eggs in the university basket.
But the whole of industry is not sitting on its hands. Peter Roberts wrote in the Australian Financial Review earlier in the year that good employers are also struggling to attract apprentices. However, while Roberts highlights the initiatives undertaken by a model employer in attempting to attract apprentices, what is not so clear is whether that model employer is actually prepared to do what most employers won’t do: pay apprentices above award wages. Merely making presentations in schools about the advantages of a trades-based career does nothing to change the fact that apprentices make less than $10 an hour.
Another argument advanced by a researcher at the University of Western Sydney, Phillip Toner, is that since our public utilities passed into the hands of private companies, we have lost sight of the need for training. Toner suggests that governments were prepared to train people because they could see that even if people left their government employment, they would still be of use to the community. This is a valid argument, but still, many more people used to undertake apprenticeships with private enterprise than they do today.
Another suggestion made by all and sundry is that it is a matter of perception. As Hewson suggests, anything that involves manual labour, overalls and work boots is regarded by society as inferior. Education is to be valued and trades are seen as “dirty”.
In a story that seems to be illustrative, a friend of mine, 27, who just completed a degree in finance, following 2 diplomas in related fields and a private school education, told me that when he was 16 he was offered a plumbing apprenticeship with what had traditionally been a sought after government-owned employer. His mother wouldn’t let him take the job - she wanted him to stay at school and get a “good job”. They fought long and hard over the matter and he finally succumbed. Considering the natural business acumen of this particular person, had he become a plumber he would probably own multiple houses by now and be able to go on regular overseas trips. Recently, he commenced his first job as a graduate - he’s answering phones for an insurance company. And he owns nothing.
But why do people perceive things in this way?
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