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Issue #1557      25 July 2012


Skills: rebuild the public sector

For decades governments have talked about giving priority to solving skills shortages. They promised us the “knowledge based economy”, new apprenticeship programs, “a new economy”, and even an “education revolution” with “industry playing its part.” There has been no shortage of promises while the skills shortages continued to mount. As recently as March this year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was urging Australians to tool up and train for a trade as she announced new loan arrangements for TAFE students. “I want all Australians to be fully prepared for the opportunities and better-paying jobs of the new economy,” she told the Sunday Herald Sun (11-03-2012). “I want to break down the financial barriers that prevent people from getting better skills.”

The exact extent of the skills shortages is debatable, with some employers seeking excuses to import labour on enterprise migration visas on below award rates. The shortages extend well beyond the resources sector. Skills minister Chris Evans said Australia will suffer a skills shortage of nearly half a million workers if the training system is not “radically transformed” by 2015. Australia ranks 26th out of 34 OECD countries on the percentage of GDP spent on educational institutions.

For years education and other unions repeatedly warned successive governments that action was required to prevent shortages. Their warnings fell on deaf ears. Lack of training places, lack of apprenticeships, the introduction of university and TAFE fees, and inadequate income support for students have all played a part. In some fields such a nursing, the “shortage” may have more to do with the appalling working conditions and low wages that have forced many nurses out of the system. All too often governments have been happy to rely on overseas workers to fill positions instead of investing in training here.

The government’s plans to “radically transform” the training system are centred around the “marketisation” of training. TAFE provides high quality trades training in industries across the country and high level skills in a range of key industry sectors as well as opportunities for workers and students to access literacy and numeracy and second chance education. Instead of being increased to meet shortages, recurrent funding per hour for VET (Vocational Education and Training) has declined by over 25 percent since 1997.

TAFE now has to compete for government funding with the private sector. In Victoria, which is leading the privatisation (“marketisation”) of training, between 2008 and 2011, TAFE’s share of the “market” dropped from 75 percent to 48 percent. Hundreds of TAFE teachers have been sacked. The private sector will not solve skills shortages. It will cherry pick the most profitable courses regardless of the need for them and leave the more expensive and less profitable ones to TAFE.

There is a chronic shortage of apprenticeship places. Apprenticeship wages are sometimes as low as $7 an hour, well below subsistence level, driving apprentices out of the system before completing their course.

Privatisation has taken a huge toll on the apprenticeship system. Government departments were major employers of apprentices. They built public housing, roads, bridges and other infrastructure, they maintained railway stock, provided basic utilities, most of which have been privatised. Telecom (now Telstra) in particular was responsible for putting thousands of employees through TAFE courses. The private Telcos and privatised Telstra are more interested in profits than training.

Lack of planning is the other element. Government has a responsibility to plan the development of industry and address the social, cultural and other requirements of society well into the future. Ad hoc responses following the emergence of a shortage or crisis, which is how capitalism works, are no solution. The private sector focuses on short-term profits with no thought given to the needs of the community or economy.

So instead of privatisation and pumping more money into the private sector, it is time the government got serious about solving skills shortages and providing Australians with an education system appropriate for a modern, 21st century society.

If Gillard really wanted to “break down the financial barriers”, then her government would abolish TAFE and university fees, increase income assistance for students and apprenticeship wages, and provide free child care places on campus. It would begin rebuilding the public sector and with it boost apprenticeship numbers. Public housing and public transport are two areas of pressing need for expansion by the public sector. The apprenticeship system is in need of radical reform.

Next article – Call for guaranteed resettlement

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