Let’s talk about apprenticeship reform

A recent report from the Apprenticeship Reform Advisory Group makes for some interesting reading in regard to what they propose for the apprenticeship and traineeship system. If you haven’t read it, it’s available on the Australian Apprenticeship website here.

Apprenticeship “reform” became an oft-repeated component of Australian workforce political dialogue in recent years, with this the latest federal report with its origins in the previous Abbott Government and resultant employer groups urging politicians to find new, less-regulatory routes to lower costs, raise productivity and address perceived skill shortages.

It is therefore probably excusable given the political mood of that time that the makeup of this panel (and arguably the agenda) appears to have been geared to the hospitality and Registered Training Organisation (RTO) sectors, rather than what, in retrospect, should have been an opportunity for a serious scoping study regarding the specific skills, delivery structure and training needs of a scaled-up sovereign defence industry capability.

Even the most recently announced Apprenticeship review in NSW appears to be focussed on industrial relations factors and structure rather than seizing the opportunity for a proper scoping study on defence industry skill sets.

Done properly, this would look at the inclusive skills base development process, transferrable and up-skilling opportunities represented currently, with a relevant qualification process comparable to, say, the UK Defence industry, and validated by the ‘defence primes’ operating in Australia.

This would aim to provide a flexible pool of high skills with the baseline training to be quickly up and cross skilled to provide the changing needs and drivers of not only defence, shipbuilding and aerospace but our mining, rail, new energy and auto industries.

Unfortunately, what we now see in this report appears to have received little input regarding the special and specific needs of the innovation, defence, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, engineering or electronics sectors …and what is rather astonishing is that it appears that not one member of the panel has any direct and relevant experience of actually being an apprentice!

Many of the report recommendations represent an improvement and result from a better understanding of the main issues affecting apprentices generally, but there has also been valid comment on several recommendations in the report. Certainly questionable is the value of aggregators or brokers being involved in facilitating pre-apprenticeship commencements as outlined in recommendation 16, and others similar that appear to relate little to the training and welfare of apprentices, but rather to the ‘orderly marketing’ of what have now become highly problematical vocational training packages.

Investment in apprenticeships and skills can certainly create capacity for companies to grow, replace a retiring skill base or re-shore manufacturing capability. But only if the quality and process of the apprenticeship is right, and only if the apprentices are part of a wider system of industrial partnership providing access and exposure to the very latest technologies and offering valid career progression pathways.

Apprenticeships need to offer a clear and unambiguous career pathway to today’s tech savvy school leavers particularly. We need to spend a lot more time on educating school leavers on what apprenticeships are all about.

Apprenticeships need to offer a real qualification that can be progressed to graduate diploma or degree as part of a career progression.

They need to provide for not only vocational skills development, remembering that over 25 per cent of STEM skills are delivered in vocational training, but also the now-essential soft skills that enhance their value to employers. This includes health and safety, computer aided design and programming, communication, project management, presentation and negotiation.

Importantly, Australian apprentices themselves need to be represented in all matters regarding their training and welfare. Are our student teachers, trainee nurses, police and service personnel similarly disenfranchised and marginalised? Of course not! There are just too many reports of exploitation and abuse of the apprenticeship process There are much better ways.

The UKs Sheffield University recently became one of the first to offer quality advanced manufacturing undergraduate and masters degrees using the apprenticeship model funded with industry. Successful apprentices will have the opportunity to continue their studies up to masters level. This pioneering new education route will train the advanced manufacturers of tomorrow, filling vital skills gaps, from research and development to supply.

It will provide demographics currently underrepresented in higher education access to world class university education in an internationally leading translational research context, with simultaneous work based training to create the next generation of engineers.

We need to aspire to these global exemplars that provide quality industry-powered apprenticeships that play a key role in cementing collaborations between universities and industry and will boost Australia’s productivity.

Sadly, however, if all we do in an apprenticeship reform agenda is to continue to shut our eyes to the devaluation of the apprenticeship ‘brand’ by providing or facilitating a job creation track leading nowhere, we have solved or reformed absolutely nothing, and lost a genuine opportunity at inclusive, real-world nation building.

Jon Bradshaw commenced his career with a five-year engineering apprenticeship, integrated tertiary training and subsequent career development as an Industrial/ Manufacturing Engineer with BHP Group subsidiary Tubemakers of Australia. A long-time advocate of high-value manufacturing, Jon is also one of the joint founders of Manufacturing on the Move LinkedIn group.

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