Speeches

REFORMING OUR SKILLS & VOCATIONAL EDUCATION SECTOR

June 10, 2020

I rise today to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. As the member for Sydney has said, we will not oppose this bill. The bill will establish a new statutory office, the National Skills Commissioner, to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, the labour market and workforce development issues. The commissioner will provide advice in relation to Australia's current, emerging and future workforce needs; efficient pricing for VET courses; the public and private return on government investment in VET qualifications; the performance of Australia's system for providing VET; and issues affecting Australian and international labour markets.

Labor will always ensure that we act on strong expert policy evidence and advice, and it is no different with our skills and workforce development needs. Labor has the track record. In government Labor established Skills Australia in 2008, which became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011—a body that I was proud to be a member of under both names. That agency analysed and reported on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce development needs. In contrast, one of the first actions taken by the Abbott Liberal government on taking office was to close it down, in April 2014. It's taken another seven years for the Liberals to understand that, to create a quality vocational education system that is fit for purpose, at the very least we need reliable and independent analysis of our labour market and skills needs.

It is a crucial time for the government to be establishing an agency that advises on skills and workforce development issues. Off the back of an already weakening economy, COVID-19 has exacerbated the double-whammy crisis of skills shortages and high youth unemployment. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is hard to imagine. And yet here we are confronted with both. Before COVID there was already a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages. While businesses are struggling to fill skilled positions, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill those positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that the roles require. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. I've spoken to small businesses and medium-sized businesses who say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on.

So why isn't the Prime Minister ensuring there is training for these people for jobs in industries where there is a shortage of workers? Well, because the government has spent seven years neglecting our training system. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the development of our young people and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. It has spent seven years cutting funding while also underspending the meagre amount it promised the sector. The consequences of this failure are being felt right throughout Australia, from Bathurst to Bendigo, from Joondalup to Junee. The Prime Minister has abandoned our TAFEs, and the Liberals have no plan of action for good jobs and quality skills development. This is a travesty. This government has neglected the VET sector and has neglected our young people.

Now the Prime Minister says it's his greatest goal to reform the skills sector with the JobMaker program, as he's calling it. Well, excuse me for being a little cynical, but how can we trust him? His announcement was a hollow one with no extra funding, no time frames and basically no detail. He thinks he can fix this with a marketing campaign rather than actually investing in training and educating our young people. The Prime Minister, it seems, would rather spin, deflect and bring in celebrity ambassadors than really tackle the issues before us. But this will bear out, I'm sure, when young people are finding themselves deserted, victims of empty broken promises, as today we are finding with aged-care workers, who are missing out on payments that the Prime Minister promised would be tax free but are now to be taxed, or our childcare workers, who now find that JobKeeper will be cut short for them. And then it will be our young people. As the Leader of the Opposition said, it seems to be women and children first.

We know that as part of the reform process those who sit opposite will want to deregulate and fragment, to put course designs in the hands of companies and the private sector, to bring more flexibility into the sector. We can't let this happen. I come from the trade union movement, and whenever we heard the word 'flexibility' we coined it to be the new F-word. It always meant that workers were about to be done over, that wages were about to be cut, that jobs were about to disappear.

Short courses aren't of themselves poor for the sector. There may be good reasons for workers with a qualification to want to upgrade skills in a niche area. However, the fact is that subjects not delivered as part of an accredited national program and those with no discernible qualification happen to be the primary areas of significant enrolment growth for VET. This is of significant concern for the consideration of youth pathways. They don't equip anyone with a job for life. We've seen the growth in low-quality, privately delivered courses putting pressure on TAFE providers and other quality providers trying to keep standards high, resulting in a race to the bottom. As a result, across the VET system we've seen a decline in outcomes for students, with dropping enrolments and low completion rates. Costs have shifted to students, who have been hit with fee increases and growing limitations on access, particularly students in our regions, and less government support. The cost of many courses is now perceived to be prohibitive for many working-class teenagers. Many aren't convinced that paying $10,000 for a VET course and being paid an apprentice or trainee wage is a good deal. Free TAFE courses in states like my home state of Victoria have demonstrated that there is demand for vocational education if it is accessible and affordable.

COVID-19 has changed the world. It is now clear that the market cannot deliver our education system. From early education to schools and skills training, our public sector institutions are crucial to our communities and our economy. Government has a role in ensuring that children come to school ready to learn, that families can participate in the workforce, that vulnerable Australians are safe and that everyone has access to skills development for a productive lifelong career in areas of the economy that are a priority, too, and not just in areas where the market finds it easiest or wealthiest to place students.

We are about to enter a time where it is likely we will see a rapid increase in unemployment and massive underemployment, especially amongst young people. Rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial to getting the economy going again and ensuring that people can access and remain in decent secure jobs. The Liberal government wants to do more of the same in vocational education. No matter how they dress it up, the emperor has no clothes when it comes to the Prime Minister's skills policy. If we continue down the road being laid by this government, with its track record of cuts and neglect of vocational education, TAFE, and apprenticeships, the effects will be devastating.

Labor has a vision for a future with good jobs that are made using quality skills, setting working people up for satisfying and prosperous careers and lives. Unlike the National Skills Commission proposed in the bill, Labor's Jobs and Skills Australia would be an independent statutory authority, providing a genuine partnership with business leaders, both large and small; state and territory governments; unions; education providers; and those who understand particular regions and cohorts. In government, Labor would enhance the National Skills Commission, which would become Jobs and Skills Australia, to establish a more collaborative and enduring structure. My question to those opposite is: do you really have a plan for vocational education and training? There is no substitute for proper funding in this sector and there is no substitute for leadership, and currently it seems you are lacking in both.

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