The recently announced 2021-2022 Federal Budget has failed the next generation of welders, with a noticeable lack of funding allocated to TAFE, and vocational training more broadly. This is despite the serious skills shortage facing Australian industry, exacerbated by border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The welding industry is facing a looming skills crisis—the skills required to complete complex infrastructure, defence and construction projects are already in short supply. And yet, the Federal Government refuses to take action. The Federal Government has repeatedly failed to invest in our TAFE system, and to implement the recommendations outlined in the Joyce Report, handed to them almost eighteen months ago.
What will it take for the Federal Government to listen to, and act upon, the concerns of industry?
The 2021-2022 Federal Budget
The Government claims to be “building skills for the future” in the 2021-2022 Federal Budget. $6.4 billion will be invested over the next two years “to build the skills that Australia’s economy needs to thrive in a post‑COVID‑19 world”.
The Federal Government demonstrated a serious lack of understanding in the way that complex skills like welding are developed. The Government pledged $2.7 billion to extend the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements program, without allocating any funding for the fundamental TAFE courses required to undertake an apprenticeship and become trade qualified.
As any aspiring welder can tell you, an apprenticeship is only one step on the journey to becoming a qualified and competent welder. You need to complete the Certificate III in Engineering – Fabrication Trade (MEM30305) as well. If the very institutions that offer this training are under-funded, the “pipeline of skilled workers” the Government claims to be developing simply won’t materialise.
Failure to Fund TAFE
The 2021-2022 Budget is not the first time TAFE has been overlooked by the Federal Government. This Budget represents only the latest in a string of failures for the TAFE system. Since 2013, TAFE has suffered over $3 billion in funding cuts, according to the Australian Education Union. These cuts have had a devastating impact on TAFE.
TAFE was once a vital and high-functioning part of Australia’s vocational education sector. The TAFE system of the 2000s was well-funded, publicly accountable, and delivered excellent training across a range of disciplines. TAFE utilised innovative methods and skilled teaching staff to prepare the next generation for the workforce.
But the introduction of the marketised delivery system – a ridiculous and profoundly damaging policy experiment – has led to the gradual downfall of our successful TAFE system. Nationally, funding for the entire vocational training sector has declined from highs of $7.6 billion in 2012 to $6.1 billion in 2019. TAFE is now forced to compete with private providers for student dollars, creating the situation where the institutions have become increasingly outdated and unable to provide high-quality training to students.
TAFE Graduates aren’t Ready for the Workforce
It is a national shame that TAFE graduates of some welding programs enter the workforce without the skills or knowledge required for the industry. Welder training in Australia is woefully outdated, teaching skills that are not relevant to current work practices. Figures show employer satisfaction with training has fallen nearly 10 per cent in the past decade alone.
The TAFE welding course and curriculum has not been updated or revised since 1998. Generally speaking, TAFE graduates cannot read a welding procedure, set up a welding machine, or weld according to Australian Standards. It is a wonder that new welders complete their training, based as it is on theory and textbooks which hardly relate to the work they hope to make into their career.
Welding is an exciting, innovative, and dynamic industry – but the training offered to aspiring welders is dry and static.
This is not the fault of TAFEs, or of TAFE teachers; they are at the mercy of the funding merry-go-round. TAFE requires proper funding to invest in new technology and equipment to better prepare graduates for the workplace. Graduates should be taught skills for the future of the industry, like automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing processes. Instead, they are being taught processes that became largely redundant years ago.
All of this results in young welders that lack complex, high order technical knowledge and skills – or workers that do not meet industry demand. The government is not creating a pipeline of skilled workers. It is blocking the pipeline with workers who require more supervision and training to safely operate within the workforce, or worse, who won’t be employable at all.
Shortage of Skilled Workers: A Crisis in the Making
Welders are more in demand than ever with several large-scale, high-value projects on the horizon, from the Federal Government’s $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Program, through to major infrastructure projects such as the $12 billion Sydney Metro project, and the $5 billion Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
Attracting and retaining younger talent through engaging, well-funded training and apprenticeships is critical to combatting the severe skills shortage.
A shortage in skilled welders is not a problem unique to Australia. Globally, the numbers of welders with the skills required for complex work does not meet demand. By 2025 Australia will need an additional 25,000 qualified welders to complete defence and infrastructure projects. The cost to the economy of not addressing this problem will run into several billion dollars.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of qualified welders is decreasing. Tradesmen identifying as Welding Trades Workers fell from 75,800 in 2014 to 69,600 in 2019. This is despite the consistent need for skilled welders in a wide range of industries and the ongoing requirement for welders to contribute to large scale projects.
Even the number of welders identified by the ABS is misleading. Small business surveys reveal that 75% of this cohort, or 52,200 welders, are unable to pass a basic welding test to either Australian or International welding standards. This is the minimum qualification required for structural steel welding.
For years now, Australia’s major infrastructure, mining and other projects have relied on the work of overseas welders. With the ongoing border closures due to COVID-19 – the Budget suggests a further twelve months before international travel will resume – utilising majority external labour is no longer an option. The lack of foresight to develop a highly skilled local industry of welders will spell disaster for Australian industry, and for the very infrastructure projects the Federal Budget is investing in.
Implement the Joyce Report Recommendations Now
On 2 April 2019, the Australian Government released the final report of the Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System, also known as the Joyce Report. The report recommended strengthening the vocational education and training (VET) system to ensure it delivers the appropriate skills for students, job seekers, employers, industry and businesses.
Of the 71 recommendations included in the Joyce Report, none have yet been implemented. Despite the looming skills shortage for industry projects, the lack of funding in our TAFE system, and the worrying paucity of knowledge in welding graduates, the Government continues to sit on their hands.
Weld Australia has requested that the Federal Government implement the ‘Early Actions’ recommendations of the Joyce Report without further delay. These include disbanding the existing infrastructure for developing training packages and qualifications and replace it with industry led Skills Organisations; strengthening quality assurance by introducing independent student assessment to international standards; introducing vocational pathways in schools as part of the STEM program; and establishing a National Skills Commission to generate skills demand forecasts and realistic pricing models.
Additionally, Weld Australia wants the Government to increase diversity within the welding industry, and to bring more people into the trade. We have requested that they implement an affirmation action policy for women and indigenous Australians in welding, as well as welder training and pathways for Correction Institutions and for the unemployed.
The situation may be dire. But, with proper funding and a systematic overhaul as recommended in the Joyce Report, there is a brighter future for TAFE and skills development in Australian industry. We just need the Government to make it happen.