Technical training is key to Australia’s future prosperity

Geoff Crittenden, CEO, Weld Australia, shares his views on the performance of Australia’s TAFE system when it comes to welding training. 

In view of the ongoing commentary in the media regarding the state of Australia’s TAFE system, I feel that it is worthwhile to comment on my experience with our TAFE partners around the country.

Before doing so, I would like to reiterate my long-held view that technical training is absolutely key to the future prosperity of Australia. Technical training should be just as ingrained in our society as primary, secondary and university education. Technical training is no less important than any other form of education. In fact, it could be argued that, because of its impact on our economic performance, technical training is even more important.

For example, the Federal Government’s $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Program relies heavily on Australia’s ability to train highly skilled tradesmen and technicians who are qualified to deliver the projects. TAFE, nationally, will play a crucial role in this endeavour. As such, our TAFE system should be regarded as a strategic asset. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have well-funded and resourced TAFE colleges nationally.

Australia’s TAFE institutes were once the backbone of Australia’s vocational education sector. They were stable, well-funded, trusted, and publicly accountable. They provided a comprehensive range of courses, oversaw apprenticeships, and created innovative curricula and teaching methods. Private providers offered specialist or ancillary training only.

With funding cuts at both the State and Federal Government levels, under the new marketised delivery system (one of the most ridiculous policy experiments ever undertaken) TAFE is expected to compete with private providers for student dollars. This system requires TAFEs to provide a full range of courses across campuses in both metropolitan and regional areas.

In comparison, private providers can pick and choose to offer only the most profitable courses, delivered in only those areas in which there is a high demand. Private providers do not face the same infrastructure investment requirements as TAFEs and, without the strict government oversight faced by TAFEs, are able to entice students using a range of incentives.

Given the chronic lack of funding, job cuts, and the dismal failed policy experiment of marketised delivery, TAFEs simply have not had the capacity or capability to upgrade or modernise courses and curricula, or to develop new qualifications designed to capitalise on the emerging needs of advanced manufacturing.

The TAFE welding curriculum has not been updated or revised since 1995. As a result, young welding apprentices enter the workforce without the requisite skills or knowledge. Generally speaking, TAFE graduates cannot read a welding procedure, set up a welding machine, or weld according to Australian Standards. It is a disgrace.

Not surprisingly, enrolments in vocational training programs have fallen sharply. Since peaking in 2012 (at over 500,000 people in training), enrolments have dropped by half in just the last five years. In 2017, just 269,000 Australians were enrolled in VET training programs. Equivalent to barely two per cent of Australia’s total employment, this is one of the weakest rates of vocational education participation in any industrial country in the world.

But, there is hope. In Victoria, when the current State Government came into power four years ago, the TAFE system was in disarray. It needed funding and policy direction. Today, the Victorian TAFE system is the most progressive and dynamic technical educational system in Australia. Similarly, the South Australian State Government is making some fantastic improvements to the state’s TAFE system.

The profound, multidimensional crisis in our national vocational education and training system is not a political or an ideological issue; it is not a Liberal versus Labor debate, nor should it be. Partisan interests must be set aside for the greater good of the country.

Weld Australia is calling for an urgent review by the Productivity Commission into our TAFE system nationally, with a view to developing a bi-partisan strategic plan that will ensure we have globally competitive technical training throughout Australia.

We must put a stop to the budget cuts, to the redundancies, to the failed privatisation policies. We must ensure that our TAFEs are once again stable, well-funded, trusted and publicly accountable. Only then will TAFE be able to deliver the type of technical training required to secure the future of Australia’s manufacturing, welding and industrial sectors.