By Innes Willox, Ai Group Chief Executive
When the COVID-pandemic struck a little over a year ago apprenticeship commencements fell through the floor and young trainees were among the first to have their jobs cut or training cancelled. Ai Group advocated hard for a program to support apprentices and the federal government responded with the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements program.
That program, which has now been extended, provided support for businesses to retain or take on new apprentices. It has been an overwhelming success which has benefitted more than 100,000 apprentices and trainees.
The new funding announced recently will consolidate the gains and enable more employers to take on their usual annual intake of apprentices and trainees and in many instances increase apprenticeship numbers.
Another Ai Group proposal which will support the creation of a strong pipeline of skills to help lift the economy out of the COVID downturn is a National Cadet Program.
Ai Group has urged the Federal Government to use the May budget to fund national wage subsidies to assist employers to engage VET and higher education students as cadets and interns.
The rapidly changing work environments and skill needs thrown up by COVID-19 are best served by learning that is connected to the workplace and closely reflects workplace skill needs, such as work-based and work integrated learning models.
Apprenticeships are a typical employment-based learning model but work-based learning includes internships and cadetships, where formal education and training is supplemented by actually doing the work on the job and support from other skilled co-workers.
There is much evidence that combining an employment contract with formal education and training results in better employment outcomes. Benefits of work-based learning include a stronger connection to current workforce needs and better linkages with labour market demand.
For employers, such programs create potential long-term employees in addition to benefits gained through the productive work completed during placements.
The proposed national program, designed and proposed by Peter Dawkins (Victoria University) and David Lloyd (University South Australia), would require substantial wage subsides in order to provide incentives to employers to take on cadets at scale in the height of exceptionally high youth unemployment and poor labour market prospects. The program could be developed through Commonwealth/State and Territory partnerships, as well as with Commonwealth Higher Education funding. Existing infrastructure that administers employer incentives and wage subsidies could be expanded.
Another area which could benefit from Federal budget support concerns the need for higher level skills programs to meet the demands of a transforming economy.
Digital transformation has been fast-tracked by the pandemic and it is vital for the recovery that higher level skills programs are introduced across industry to meet the need for skill levels that are creeping ever higher.
Prior to the pandemic, automation was already disrupting skills, reallocating employment between tasks, sectors and regions. Labour demand is shifting towards higher level, more cognitive skills for which many workers are not adequately trained.
Ai Group’s pre-pandemic research had shown that employers were prioritising managers for digital technology training. This need for management development is likely to have been heightened by the acceleration into digital systems by many companies. Businesses are now even more likely to develop new digital strategies which have implications for their workforce development.
The transforming economy will continue to rely heavily on higher education to develop higher critical enquiry.
Formal work-based learning programs at higher levels, are gaining interest from both industry and potential apprentices/cadets. These approaches have the twin benefit of extending the level of qualification awarded for apprenticeships as well as expanding the scope to non-trade and more para-professional occupations.
There have been two pilots to trial higher apprenticeships. The Ai Group pilot focused on high-level technical skills in engineering and digital technology. The other was developed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, who piloted an 18-month Diploma of Business in apprenticeship mode for professional, business, information technology and financial services.
In South Australia at the start of 2021, a group of about 20 school leavers are commencing formal training contracts to undertake the Diploma with a range of companies including manufacturers and water and energy transmission companies. One large Defence industry manufacturer intends to offer apprenticeships at the Bachelor level once approvals have been obtained.
It is clear that higher education, advanced apprenticeships will greatly assist the needs of industry. However, there are challenges in making higher apprenticeships more broadly available. State Training Authorities currently recognise only VET-level qualifications as apprenticeships or traineeships. Universities in Australia are not familiar with the model. Industrial awards generally do not make provision for them.
Ai Group’s own advocacy on education and training is soon to be given a big boost with imminent launch of our own Centre for Education and Training. This will be a new research and advocacy body designed to better connect skills development with the needs of industry and the community.
We are working hard to ensure that there is a strong pool of skilled workers ready to contribute to growth and provide meaningful and well targeted jobs and careers as our economy emerges from this pandemic.