18 December, 2016

Apprenticeships and TAFE: worth fighting for

By Rosie Scroggie

Apprenticeships are again the flavour of the month, as they tend to be every once in a while. It seems it’s easier to talk about these things than actually do anything about them, isn’t it?

The Commonwealth recently released yet another report prepared by another group of well-meaning people who have produced yet again a range of observations about what could be changed in the apprenticeship space without, yet again, outlining what problem they are purporting to solve, and how their observations are going to solve it.

The NSW Government have released a Consultation Paper asking if we need apprenticeships at all!

For over 600 years now young and not so young people have learned their craft from those around them, in a workplace where they can contextualise their learning in order to develop the capability they need to be functioning and productive workers.

In days gone by that learning would have taken place entirely in the workplace under the guidance, and often stern hand, of the Master and woe betide the apprentice that failed to heed the direction of the Master.

Indentured as they were from a very young age apprentices spent many years learning and honing their skills in the hope that they too could become the ‘journeyman’ tradesperson and ply their trade and perhaps make a living along the way.

Thankfully, we have moved on somewhat from what was essentially indentured servitude into a more sophisticated employment-based relationship between apprentices and their more contemporary ‘masters’.

Gone is the indenture that I signed as a 17 year old at a ritual signing ceremony at which ‘it was expected’ that parents would attend, and at which apprentices ‘were expected’ to be suitably attired, complete with tie.

Gone also is the notion that training for the skilled trades could take place entirely in the workplace, as technological advancements and evolutions in systems and processes demanded ever more knowledge to underpin productive performance. A partnership between industry and professional VET teachers, almost exclusively TAFE Teachers, evolved and trade training found its groove.

We had, for many years, a proper balance between high quality formal trade training based on sound pedagogy, integrated with good work and learning experiences, effective mentoring and above all else, an understanding that whilst new skills can be taught, it takes time and practice for them to be learnt and perfected.

I’m reminded of the time when, as a young(ish) fabricator on the tools I got a drawing from an engineer that required me to cut the ends off a couple of disused oil tankers, weld them together and put a lid on one end and a funnel on the other end with four legs to produce a vertical silo for sand. The finished product was around 20 metres tall.

On completion, the engineer, fresh from his fully institutional university degree, came down to look at the final result and stood with his mouth open muttering ‘gee, it’s big isn’t it!’

I often think of that experience when I hear of yet another government sponsored review charged with reforming apprenticeships. It seems clear to me that the so-called reforms governments are looking for are simply ways to make trade training cheaper and quicker. More often than not they are based on an assumption that sophisticated trade skills can be taught quickly up front and ‘practiced’ later. But as we know, good skills aren’t cheap, and cheap skills aren’t good.

The challenges that the Australian economy confronts will not be overcome by a workforce that is trained on the basis of a handful of down and dirty ‘skill sets’ added to an institutionally based pre-employment program. I cannot think of a time in Australia’s history when great reforms and nation building feats have been attempted without skills being at the forefront.

There will be no building the Australian economy, or the society it is meant to serve, without first rebuilding our skilled workforce, and as we know, that starts with defending and rebuilding TAFE!

From a purely manufacturing and engineering point of view we have $60 – 70 billion of capability building projects on the go and they will simply not happen without a substantial investment in skills and skill building infrastructure. It will certainly not happen if it is left to the market.

I was in Germany in July where I witnessed first-hand how a genuine powerhouse economy goes about ensuring it has the skills to leave other economies in its wake.

For all its faults, the German ‘dual system’ is producing the skilled workers Germany needs to ensure it maintains a strong standard of living in a world where, for many, standards are declining. I stood in a training centre in Stuttgart that would be the envy of any TAFE I have seen anywhere in Australia and marvelled at the investment in cutting edge technology, student amenities and teacher professionalism. And this was a company owned and operated facility designed to complement the Vocational College training that the company’s apprentices received.

While I was there I spoke to young IG Metall union activist who told me he was on his third company sponsored apprenticeship for an Engineering Degree, to go with his Trade and Meister qualifications. The Director of Human Resources spoke with great pride of the €100 million that the company invested directly in building the workforce that it needed to continue to be a global leader in its field.

That old anecdote sprang to my mind about the CEO who asks another CEO, ‘what if I train my workforce and they leave?’ And the reply, ‘what if you don’t train them and they stay?’ You don’t need to be Einstein to know which of the two the Australian CEO was!

The thing that struck me was the extent to which all of the key players, Employers, Employer Chambers (membership of which is compulsory interestingly), Trade Unions, Vocational Colleges and the State & Federal Governments share the responsibility to produce the skilled worker that is the intended purpose of their apprenticeship system.

Federal Occupational Standards, in-company training standards, Vocational Training Framework Curriculum and independent assessment regimes are all the subject of collaboration between both the social partners and government and the publicly funded Vocational Colleges.

Notwithstanding the criticisms of the German system, that it is too rigid, that it forces young people to make choices at far too young an age, I wonder if there is a middle ground between the obsession Australian governments have with ‘markets’ and maximising flexibility in the system, often at the expense of quality and coherence, and what appears to be certainty and rigidity on the part of the German system.

According to the German Office for International Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training in a presentation during my visit, the system works in Germany because the following conditions are met:

  • Long-standing history of Dual VET
  • Strong small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)
  • Interest, commitment and capability of companies to train
  • Strong and competent representation of employer and employee interests (chambers/labour unions)
  • Broad-based acceptance of VET standards through strong involvement of social partners in VET and culture of cooperative engagement
  • Strong regulatory capacity of government
  • Competent TVET teachers and trainers

Meanwhile, here in Australia we have the myopic NSW Government questioning whether we need apprenticeships at all, and the ARAG report proposing a review conducted by the Productivity Commission, more co-contributions by students, more employer incentives, and exploring the potential for integrating pre-employment and pre-apprenticeship programs with ‘work-based welfare programmes’, oh, and more commercial brokers!

And of course we are tearing down the only institution that could hope to give us the high quality leading edge skills we need.

Rather than more reviews and reforms, why don’t we remember that the problem we are trying to solve is not how to make skills cheaper, or to subsidise the bottom line of employers, it is the production of the skilled workers we need to build the future we want?

TAFE is central to that. It’s worth fighting for.

Ian Curry is the National Coordinator for Skills Training & Apprenticeships at the AMWU

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