SUBJECTS: Skills shortages in the ACT; apprentice butcher and hairdresser shortages; Morrison Government’s $3bn TAFE and training cuts

STEVE CENATIEMPO, HOST: Deputy Leader in the Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for National Reconstruction, Employment, Skills and Small Business and Shadow Minister for Science, Richard Marles. Richard, that’s a mouthful!

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: It is a mouthful, Steve! So let’s just work with reconstruction and – in the context of what I hope we’re going to talk about now – skills, where we’ve got a real problem in this country.

CENATIEMPO: Yeah, and particularly here in the ACT with two particular areas: hairdressers and apprentice butchers. A 40 per cent decline in trainees since 2013? I, for the life of me, I can’t see the rationale behind that.

MARLES: Well it’s a troubling figure but these are the figures that are coming out of the federal government themselves. So you know, we’ve got 45 per cent less hairdressers today- or trainees, I should say, in hairdressing today – than there were in 2013. 43 per cent less trainee butchers today than there were in 2013. And, you know, these are really important trades. I think, you know, as we’re coming out of lockdown there’s only so far a home haircut can go! I think people will be looking forward to getting to be in the hands of a professional when it comes to having their hair cut.
But what this is actually showing is that hairdressers and butchers are really struggling to find people to work in their businesses, to take over those businesses when they retire, and that’s a real issue. And to be fair, what this speaks to is a much bigger issue really across the economy, which is that we have far less trainees and apprentices today than we did back in 2013, about 85,000 less. The reason for that is pretty simple: when the Federal Government cuts $3 billion out of TAFE over the last eight years, that’s going to have an impact, and that’s what we’ve seen. And I think one of the things that has come through COVID- I mean, this isn’t because of COVID, but COVID has really exposed this- we are simply not training people in the way that we need to and you know, right across the economy, people are desperately struggling to find the skilled workers that they need.

CENATIEMPO: There’s a couple of issues here and I think in fairness both the federal government and state and territory governments right across the country probably recognise this and we’ve started to see a reinvestment in traineeships and apprenticeships in recent times, but we’re really playing catch up. But we’re also talking about importing workers now to fill these skill shortages. It’s almost too late to start looking at that structural and cultural change that we need to engage to get more Aussies into these jobs, and particularly coming out of this pandemic where we’re going to have so many Aussies out of work. Are we looking at this from the wrong perspective?

MARLES: Well I don’t think it’s too late, but I think what we have discovered is that we’ve got a real problem. And I think you’ve put your finger on it, I mean, with the international border being closed we don’t have anything like the number of people in the country who are on temporary work visas. And as a result, what’s been exposed is that there’s a whole lot of areas where we were, as you say, really relying on people from overseas performing that work. And we’re not training enough of our own to do it. And let me be clear, I’m all for immigration and having an open border. But it’s absolutely essential that we’re training our own people in these critical skills. And I think this is what has been laid bare in the last 15 months. When you look at what has caused it, it’s completely clear, we – when I say that, the national government – has de-funded the system and that’s going to have a consequence. And that’s the consequence we’re seeing. And when you drill it down, it is in critical areas like butchers, like hairdressers, and that has a real impact on people’s lives.

CENATIEMPO: As I see it though, there could be a two-pronged, or a twofold problem here in that when it comes to say things like nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers, the things that government has direct control over, you can say ‘well a lot of people don’t want to go into these professions because they don’t pay well enough anymore and government can fix that’. But when it comes to butchers and hairdressers, could it just be that they’re hard jobs that nobody wants to do anymore? I mean, it’s not like the government’s going to start hiring hairdressers.

MARLES: No, but the government has a critical role in funding the training of these people. And what’s clear is that we’re not training enough of these particular trades; hairdressers, butchers, but right across the economy we’ve got a skills crisis going on in Australia. That is the plain fact. And there is the question of the incentives to do this work but what’s really clear is that for a lot of these jobs, they are actually well paid if you go out and get the skills, there’s a fantastic career to be had on the other side of that training. And I think there is a bit of a question here about the messages that we’re giving kids at school. I think schools are really good at encouraging people into university, and that’s fantastic, but for a lot of kids, university is not where they want to go and I think schools do need to do a better job in promoting the pathways to TAFE and to VET and towards getting a trade, knowing that at the end of getting that training, there’s a fantastic career which is well paid and great opportunities. But to do all of that we need to be fundamentally funding the system. And that’s what’s been missing over the last eight years. And so, when you’ve got a situation that there are 85,000 less apprentices and trainees today in Australia than there were in 2013, in a context where the population and the labour market has grown, that is an astonishing statistic. Well, it’s going to have an impact, and it has an impact on, you know, the nitty gritty trades, like butchers, like hairdressers, like childcare workers.

CENATIEMPO: Certainly an issue that we need to address. Richard Marles, I appreciate your time this morning.

MARLES: Pleasure, Steve.


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