APPRENTICES: EXPLOITED, UNDERPAID AND DISAPPEARING

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Low apprenticeship and traineeship completion rates, declining enrolments and rising shortages of key skills are warning signs that something is going badly wrong in a key sector of the state’s education provision.

Department figures show there are 123,481 apprentices and trainees in NSW.  Apprenticeships usually last between three and four years. Drop-out rates are high, with just over half of those who enrol completing. Enrolment rates continue to fall.

As part of their campaign for the rights of young people in education, the Young Greens are working with my office to highlight the plight of apprentices. We jointly held a forum in Ashfield on 11 June, addressed by Mark Burgess from the Electrical Trades Union, Rebel Hanlon from the CFMEU Construction Division, Phil Chadwick from the NSW Teachers Federation and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.

Forum speakers highlighted the challenges facing the apprentices.

  • Barriers to entry: At a time of high youth unemployment, participation is falling. The number of people starting an apprenticeship in Australia fell by 21.9% from 2013 to 2014. Finding an employer, accessing a TAFE college and purchasing the tools and equipment needed for the trade are turning too many young people away.
  • Fewer employers taking on apprentices: There has been a sustained decline in the number of apprenticeships offered. Privatisation of the state’s electricity grid is likely to exacerbate the long term trend.
  • TAFE offers less assistance: The Baird government’s Smart and Skilled competitive training market has dumped TAFE into competition with low-cost, low-quality private providers. TAFE has responded with larger classes, cuts to teacher contact hours and increased inappropriate use of on-line learning. Pre-apprentice courses and learning support have become much harder to find. Young people with diverse learning styles are increasingly struggling to successfully complete their course work.
  • Federal assistance has cut: Grants to help apprentices purchase the tools and equipment they need (‘Tools for Your Trade’) have been replaced by the Abbott government with an income-contingent (HECS) loan for $20,000 (‘Trade Support Loans’). Many students cannot afford their tools and are turned away by the prospect of starting their working lives with a substantial debt.
  • Unliveable pay and conditions: Despite pay increases in 2013, many apprenticeship rates are below those for unskilled employment.

While apprentices receive one day a week release from work to attend TAFE, some employer groups are seeking to revert to night school or to force apprentices to spend two years studying full-time without wages before they receive on-the-job paid work and training.

Many employers prefer to employ overseas workers on 457 visas than train apprentices.

As NSW faces both increased expenditure on infrastructure and a growing issue of youth unemployment, government purchasing should focus on demanding contractors take on apprentices and support them throughout their training.

For more information: John Kaye 0407 195 455

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