SUBJECTS: Free TAFE; Australia’s skills shortages; Labor’s skills announcement.

STEVE PRICE, HOST: As we know there’s a huge skill shortage and there are businesses around the country that are not even able to open because they can’t find staff. There’s a report in the Daily Telegraph today suggesting that a high school in Broken Hill is getting people who don’t even know anything about music to teach music lessons because they can’t get teachers to go out west. Richard Marles is the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, also the Shadow Minister for Reconstruction, Employment, Skills and Small Business. He wrote a piece in the (West) Australian recently querying ‘where’s all the staff gone’? He’s on the line, good to talk to you again.


PRICE: I’m great. Where are we going to find the people we need to get the economy rebooted? I mean, it looks like we’re past the worst of COVID, but so many businesses are struggling to find anyone to work for them.

MARLES: It’s absolutely right, and you speak to any business in the country, and they are absolutely struggling to find the people they need. We’ve got a skills crisis going on in Australia. I mean, the sad truth here is that it’s not going to be easy to change this overnight. I mean, we’ve announced that we want to make it free for people to go TAFE if they study in an area of skills shortage, and that’s what we’ll deliver if we were to be elected next year. But this is an issue which is facing the country right now, and the reason it is is because over the last eight years we’ve seen billions of dollars cut from TAFE by the Morrison Government. We’ve got something like 85,000 less apprentices and trainees today than we did in 2013. I mean, that’s an astonishing figure given that, you know, the economy’s grown, the labour market has grown, apprentices and trainees have gone backwards. So we’ve got a big problem, and we need to fix it.

PRICE: TAFE in Australia is largely though, Richard, isn’t it a state-based education system run differently in each state by each state government?

MARLES: That’s true, but it also receives federal funding. And so the proposition- and it does so now, and so the proposition is that we would put forward money which we would negotiate with the states to go towards removing fees for all of those courses where it’s in an area of skill shortage. To be fair, a whole lot of states have moved some way down this path and that varies from state to state. But we would be working with the states to go the whole way.

PRICE: My memory of working in New South Wales, and then comparing it to now in Victoria – the New South Wales TAFE system’s in dreadful trouble, underfunded, resources have not been put into it, they haven’t renovated any of their buildings and a lot of students who would have gone to TAFE are now in courses in university. Victoria’s different, the TAFE system there still seems to run. How would your scheme actually work? I mean, when you say it would be free, are you saying there’d be no fees that the student would have to pay to go to particular TAFE courses, but in some other TAFE courses, they would have to pay, is that what you’re proposing?

MARLES: In essence, so if you’re studying an area of skill shortage – and the National Skills Commission publishes a Skills Priority List, in other words, it publishes a list where there are skill shortages – we would use that as a base. We would go and negotiate with the states to see the extent to which that describes the skill shortages in each state. And it is pretty similar from state to state, although some states for example, Western Australia might have differences. And then in terms of the additional funding that we are looking to put into the system over and above what the Commonwealth already puts into the system, we would then be talking to the states about how that gets directed to removing what fees exist within those courses.

You’re right though, the actual campuses themselves in various parts of Australia, in differing states and some are rundown. A lot of work needs to be done there. We’re actually looking at putting $50 million towards upgrading IT systems where there are critical areas of need on those campuses.

I think the other thing, Steve, is I mean partly this is a question of resources, which I’ve described, partly it’s about mindset as well. I think our school system does a good job in preparing people to go to university, but if you’re not going to go to university there’s almost a sense now, I reckon, that you kind of failed a bit. That there’s something else over there, but you’ve sort of missed out, and I think that’s really wrong. I mean, uni is great, but getting a trade is great too. And I think we need to be celebrating that more within our schools and saying to a whole lot of kids who might not want to go to uni, you go and get a trade and get that skill, there is a really good job at the end of it, you’ll earn decent money, you’ll have a great life. And that that is something to prepare kids for and to celebrate. And I think it’s really important that going hand-in-hand with this is actually talking about TAFE and trade training in a really different way.

PRICE: Well try getting a tradie, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do anything at home, I mean, it’s impossible! They can demand high prices and the roads are clogged with, you know, dual-cab utes and tradies, it seemed to me just on a casual observation, doing really well.

MARLES: 100 per cent. Like tradies do well, and they do earn money, and they have a really good life. And so, you know, I think it’s really important that for a whole lot of kids where this is where they would be much more inclined to go, that that’s not seen as sort of Plan B or the second option, but that’s Plan A. And we should be celebrating that because I don’t know when it happened but somehow I think that the school system, it’s all about university – and don’t get me wrong, university is great, too. But if you’re not going there, getting a trade is a really, really good option. And people should be encouraged to pursue it.

PRICE: Stop training lawyers and start training plumbers might be the way to go. In your piece, you make the point that we still have over two million Australians who are out of work or need more work, was the way you put it, and yet we have this huge gap in people being able to fill jobs. Other than the TAFE idea, if Labor were to win in March or May or whenever the election is, how do you close the gap on those two things?

MARLES: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and it’s not an easy one. I think the first thing is we’ve got to think about, I think, unemployment in a slightly different way. So that two million figure includes under-employed – there are a lot of people out there who have some work, but are not working fulltime and that’s not by choice, so they would like to work more. And that’s where you get the two million. The unemployment number, the headline unemployment number is relatively low, but the number that has consistently grown over the last eight years is the long-term unemployed number. You can look at it in different ways, but basically for anyone who’s been unemployed for more than a year, that number has grown. Those who have been unemployed for more than five years, that number has grown. The question of the long-term unemployed in Australia really is the problem that we need to solve. I think there is a question here of looking at employment services providers like you know, when you when you are unemployed you get directed to a company, which will look to help to find-

PRICE: -don’t get me started on that, they don’t work!

MARLES: Well I think [inaudible] need to be re-looked at, a lot of compliance obligations. And again, don’t get me wrong here, mutual obligation is something Labor’s [inaudible]. We think it’s a very important piece of the puzzle. But it’s also important that those jobs service agencies are directed to try and help people get into work, and so a lot of [inaudible] needs to be undertaken there. And we’re having a good look at that to see how we get those companies really focusing much more on the sorts of things – training is a perfect example and it complements what we’ve announced in relation to free TAFE. But training, you know, a range of other levers you can pull to try and get people into work.

PRICE: The Government seems to be hell-bent on bringing in skilled workers on skilled worker visas. Now, we all admit that we can’t in Australia fill all those positions without workers from overseas, backpackers and all of those people. What’s your view on those special skilled visas and people coming into Australia to fill these jobs?

MARLES: Yeah look, as you say there is absolutely a role for skilled migration and you know, we would want to see the border get back to normal as soon as possible. And to be fair, what we are seeing now is, if you like, amplified by virtue of the fact that the border has effectively been closed over the last 18 months. And opening the border and getting back to a sense of normality is going to help. But I think the real point that we then need to take from this is that having had the experience of the border being closed, and then working out that we have massive skill gaps within our own population and within our own economy, if we don’t learn the lesson that we’re not training Australians in the right numbers now, from this pandemic, we are mugs. Like, we are missing a huge play if we don’t work out that we’re just not training enough of our own. To me, that is the lesson that comes out of the pandemic, it’s the lesson that we have to learn. So sure, opening the border or getting back to normality is going to help this situation but the lesson we’ve got learn here is we’ve got to train up a whole lot more Australians.

PRICE: Great to catch up Richard, thanks a lot.

MARLES: Thanks, Steve.


Get the latest updates
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.