SUBJECT: Skills crisis in Central Queensland.

PAUL CULLIVER, HOST: But right now, in front of me, Richard Marles; he is the Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party, he has a few other portfolios too, he is the Shadow Minister for National Reconstruction, Employment, Skills and Small Business, he also the Shadow Minister for Science, and joins me this morning. Good morning to you.


CULLIVER: I’m very well. And a coincidence that you and the Deputy Prime Minister both happened to be visiting the region today.

MARLES: I didn’t know that until I was listening to the ABC this morning, to discover that Barnaby is also in this neck of the woods, so there you go.

CULLIVER: Funny one. Today you are talking about a skills shortage you believe is in Central Queensland. What do you- what evidence do you have to back that up?

MARLES: Well, there is a skill shortage really across the country, but it’s being felt, particularly here, in Rockhampton and other parts of Central Queensland. I mean, we’ve got data now, which is showing that something like 1,500 apprenticeships have been lost in the period from the beginning of this government through until September of last year. That’s a drop of about 30 per cent, in terms of the number of apprentices which are here in Rockhampton, or in the seat of Capricornia. That’s a significant loss of skills. And if you go to Gladstone, the neighbouring electorate of Flynn, similar numbers, in fact, by proportion I think it’s slightly more there. This is hollowing out the ability for industry to work. And what we’re seeing is a skills crisis in Australia, and it’s been particularly felt here.

CULLIVER: Okay. Well, you say there’s apprenticeships lost. Do you mean as in there’s fewer placements year on year?

MARLES: That’s right- well there are, in absolute terms, there are 1,500 fewer apprenticeships being undertaken here, as of September last year, relative to 2013.

CULLIVER: Right. And what role should the government be having, then?

MARLES: I mean, this is a function of funding cuts from the part of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government over the eight years that they’ve been in office. Really, I think when you look at the VET sector, when you look at TAFE, it’s kind of become the poorer cousin of the education system. It’s been significantly defunded. And as a result, we’ve got fewer apprenticeships. And you know, you speak to industry, and I’m visiting Capricornia Enterprise this morning, they are crying out for apprenticeships and skills, and people everywhere that I’m speaking to, are struggling to find the kind of people they need to fulfill the jobs that they have on offer. I mean, this morning, I’ll be going to the Red Lion Hotel, they’re looking for chefs, and there is a real shortage of chefs right around the country. I think one of the things that, you know, comes out of COVID is, as a country, we need to be getting smarter, we in fact, need more skills. And we need to be climbing the technological ladder. And that is about getting PhDs and the like, but it’s actually much more about having people with trades. And there are real opportunities for people pursuing a career in trades, it has got to be seen as the first option for a whole lot of people and a whole lot of kids coming out of schools. That sort of focus on trade education is what we need to be seeing from the government, and it has been completely missing over the last eight years.

CULLIVER: Right. How would you change it?

MARLES: Well, I think, the first thing is we need to be having this conversation. But I think we do need to be putting a focus on this in schools, we need to be letting kids know that it’s a great opportunity to pursue trades. I mean, we’ve got, we do have a crisis right now, and that’s a bad thing, but it equals an opportunity for kids coming through the system now. And you know, we in a sense need to climb the technological ladder as a country. But if you look at mining and agriculture, for example, we are very good at both of those industries. They are in fact, really high-tech industries, they need people with skills- and that means trades people. And there are real opportunities for people coming through to have great careers in those industries by getting a trade. And we need to be providing the funding, we need to make sure that there is a seamless transition from school into TAFE, to get those skills. And we’ll be having a lot more to say about this in the lead up to the next election. But this will be a key focus for us. Because, you know, what we’re seeing right now has been a complete neglect of this area. And as a result, the country is facing a skills crisis.

CULLIVER: Okay, I just want to drill down though, what exactly is that neglect? Is it about funding? Or is it about not having gone into schools and telling kids they could become tradies? Like, what’s the problem here?

MARLES: I think it’s both, actually. I mean, it’s definitely about funding. There is just a raw exercise in in not putting the money up to fund apprenticeships across the system. And so, we need to change that. But I think there is also a point around making sure that when kids are going through schools, doing a trade is not seen as a kind of a fallback, if you don’t get into uni, it’s seen as a first option.

CULLIVER: I don’t- that wouldn’t be so much the case in a place like Central Queensland, like you can see it here, like, you know, your dads, your mums, people in the community. Like, I don’t think that that is so much the perspective in a place CQ?

MARLES: Well, I think what we need to be making sure of is that the pursuit of a trade is something which is encouraged and is celebrated in schools. And there are the options there for kids to seamlessly take that option up and go to pursue their trade certificate through TAFE, and to find employers willing to, you know, make sure that that is sponsored through. And, so making sure that that narrative is there, making sure that that encouragement is there is something that we want to put a focus on as well.

CULLIVER: How much should the Australian Government incentivize the right trade? So, saying there is a skill shortage here, and we need that pipeline of people, so obviously, it starts in school, it goes through the training, how do you get that pipeline right, to make sure the right skills are met?

MARLES: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. And there is there is a role for government in relation to that. We’ve announced that we would set up Jobs and Skills Australia, which is exactly about trying to identify what, where areas of skill shortage, basically. And making sure that the emphasis is placed on those industries, which require the trades. Understanding that there’s a requirement now, but sometimes, you know, it takes a while to get people with the appropriate skills in place. I mean, you know a trades certificate can take three, four years. So in that sense, you need to be also anticipating what’s going to be the need going forward. And you also need to have an ability to have the courses in place to get people with the immediate qualifications to get out the door. But that’s a really important task of government to make sure that the skills in the industries that are missing out there are matched up with the kids pursuing them.

CULLIVER: How much of the skills shortage, though, is the pandemic? Because it’s not just in Australia. I’ve certainly heard anecdotally in America and other countries that have just got this weird situation where all of a sudden there are just jobs going, because there’s the higher unemployment rates, but they’ve also got lots of job ads, it’s sort of a strange situation. So how much of it is just going to sort itself out?

MARLES: I don’t think it’s going to sort itself out. And it’s not just the pandemic. But it is relevant to the pandemic, in this sense; I think, you know, what COVID-19 has done has kind of been a bit of a report card on our society. A lot of it’s been good, I think it’s highlighted a real sense of community in Australia. And it’s also highlighted a whole lot of people, frontline workers in aged care and the like, who we mightn’t have paid a lot of attention to in the past who really are the heroes within our society. But one of the things that it’s also made clear is that with the border, the national border being much more closed, with there being less people coming in on temporary work rights, what has been highlighted is just how many- well the skills deficit, really- how many skills we don’t have in Australia. The extent to which we’ve been relying, really, on temporary work visas to come in and perform a whole lot of roles. That I think, is actually what’s been shown up now. Now that’s not- COVID-19 has shown that up, but that’s an issue, which is not to do with COVID-19- and that’s an issue that we’ve got to fix. We’ve got to make sure that we are training Australians so that they’re able to take up these jobs. And that’s really what we want to put a focus on. And so, I think COVID-19 has really illuminated the fact that there is a much bigger skills deficit than perhaps people realized. You can look at the figures, which I’ve just quoted about the cuts to funding and the fewer apprentices there are, but really, it’s been felt now by business around the country. And there needs to be- we need to see this as a call to action.

CULLIVER: Alright, Richard Marles. Appreciate your time today.

MARLES: Thanks Paul.


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