The future of Australian apprenticeships Report of the stakeholder forum Canberra, 25 October 2016

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Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) 2010, Australian blueprint for career development, viewed October 2016, <>.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2004, Career guidance and public policy: bridging the gap, OECD, Paris.

——2010, Learning for jobs, OECD, Paris.

——2004, A handbook for policy makers, OECD, Paris.

The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government, state and territory governments or NCVER.


What needs to happen for retention and completion to be increased and who is responsible?

Alan Waldron, National Training Manager at Hutchison Builders

If not you, then who?

A few years ago, the then Chief Executive of Master Builders Queensland wrote an editorial in their organisation’s magazine that asked this reasonably simple question (If not you, then who?) when addressing the need to increase the number of apprentices in the building and construction industry. Although the question was targeted particularly at the builder membership of the association, it could easily have been applied to federal and state governments and their public entities; employers in general; school leavers and their parents; and the myriad others who influence career choices.

With trade commencements showing five consecutive quarters of decline (NCVER 2016) and with the potential for skilled labour shortages a concomitant outcome, it is time to, yet again, revisit the capacity of apprenticeships to assist in meeting the skill needs of Australia in the twenty-first century.
If it is accepted that the traditional apprenticeship model (or modern effective variations) can assist in increasing Australian industry capability and capacity, then who is responsible for its strategic oversight, who should employ them, how should that occur to maximise the effectiveness of the apprenticeship and who should apprenticeships be targeted to and why?

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

The concept of an apprenticeship as involving a person bound by a legal agreement to work for another for a specific amount of time in return for instruction in a trade can be traced back to the Middle Ages. This institution came to Australia with the first European settlers and has flourished in various iterations ever since. It has allowed skilled tradespersons to mentor generations of new skilled workers over the years, with the common element always being ‘buy in’ by governments and employers, along with potential recruits willing to experience relatively low pay in return for time-honoured skills and an opportunity to gain a trade.

The key elements for success then, as now, were the opportunity to experience the breadth of the particular trade; continuous and patient support from the mentoring tradesperson/s; a willing, capable and committed student; clear and relevant expectations; and time to practise these new-found skills before attaining the capability expected of a ‘tradie’.

In 1964, when I graduated from class 4B3 at high school with a reasonable Year 10 Junior Certificate, I had the choice of a number of apprenticeships, and I chose Fitting and Turning at the Queensland Department of Main Roads. For the next four years I lived at home, rode my bike or caught the train, worked in all the various departments at the base workshop and attended TAFE during the day, but also at night in my own time. Those apprentices who excelled also had the opportunity to work in the department’s design office and had the benefit of working with engineers, who patiently explained the theory of applied mechanics, internal combustion engines and the composition and characteristics of the materials we would work with.

I use this example as a measure of the extent to which apprenticeships have changed in Australia over the past 40 years and, indeed, our experiences over the past 10 years at Hutchinson Builders, working with our own apprentices, who are students at our registered training organisation (the Gold Coast School of Construction) campuses, and our community of subcontractors and suppliers. The following list gives examples of the present-day characteristics of apprenticeships:

  • Many apprentices now start following Year 12.

  • Many of these recruits have little or no knowledge of the trade they have selected.

  • Most need a car (mandatory in construction) to get to work.

  • Many apprentices don’t live at home.

  • Most large state and federal government entities are not in the business of apprenticeships anymore and have outsourced to contractors.

  • Apart from group training organisations (GTOs) and some large employers, the responsibility for training apprentices has generally fallen on the shoulders of small to medium enterprises (SMEs), who are often subcontractors with slim margins, possess limited HR skills and have limited confidence that they have enough work to sustain a four year apprenticeship commitment.

  • Employers who have apprentices are often disengaged from the TAFE institute and the now myriad of private registered training organisations (RTOs) who provide the necessary technical trade qualifications.

  • Many employers see apprentices as a liability rather than an asset.

But some things never change: the proportion of females and Indigenous workers in some traditional trades (say construction) are still relatively low.

Definitional and quality issues

The introduction of the policy whereby certificate II and III qualifications can lead to traineeships and the 1998 federal government decision (ABS 2000) to place traditional apprenticeships and traineeships under the new, all-encompassing title of ‘New Apprenticeships’ meant that many employers (especially those SMEs without an HR capability) may have become confused by the new terminology and the complexities of modern-day HR and training. Recent front-page news of some RTOs allegedly conducting ‘tick and flick’ training and prematurely signing off students as ‘competent’ only adds to the disenchantment.

Apprenticeships – evolve or dissolve?

Given the concerns described above, it might be considered that apprenticeships have had their day. However, in the end the real issue is the efficient transfer of technical skills (including complex manual tasks and the understanding and application of technical knowledge, often in unfamiliar situations) from an expert to a novice. Apprenticeships have historically been an effective vehicle for this purpose and conceptually mirror the principles that were allegedly enunciated by the Chinese philosopher and reformer, Confucius (551 BCE to 479 BCE), who stated: ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand’.

While there are quite a few challenges to the concept, apprenticeships in their purest form are still a viable approach to developing trade skills that meet the criteria of qualifications at Australian

Qualifications Framework (AQF) levels III and IV, provided a number of elements are addressed effectively. These are:

  • Attract and recruit the right people, for the right apprenticeship at the right time and match to the right employers.

  • Train the apprentices in a consistent, innovative and flexible manner.

  • Retain them in the apprenticeship to become future leaders and long-term employees.

  • Sustain the strategy with long-term, consistent financial and political support.

Attracting the right recruits and the right employers

For apprenticeships to become a career option of first choice rather than a last resort, it is critical that we have a readily marketable ‘product’.

This ‘product’ needs to be easily explained and understood, that is to say, we are selling a career concept to a young audience in an environment where a great deal of competition already exists. The current New Apprenticeship terminology is difficult to explain and is not readily accepted; for example, school-based apprenticeships and traineeships (SBATs) are widely promoted – why aren’t school-based new apprenticeships (SBNAs)? These discrepancies make it more difficult to differentiate the ‘product’ from other options. Decoupling trade apprenticeships from traineeships would assist in marketing apprenticeships across a broad range of industries more effectively.

Readily understandable information would also assist in countering the influence of ill-informed peers (parents, friends) and misinformation on apprenticeships. Often, the duty of providing apprentice career advice falls on the shoulders of hard-pressed guidance officers, who have spent the majority of their lives in schools and university. This is further complicated by many high schools having a conflict of priorities: is their role job readiness or university preparation? Is career advice driven by matching a student’s aptitude to particular industry streams and career options or is it still simply ‘you aren’t doing well, why don’t you consider an apprenticeship?’

To avoid high cancellation rates and dissatisfied employers being ‘burnt’ by a poor apprenticeship experience, potential apprentices need to make informed career decisions. Hence, the critical role of pre-employment/apprenticeship courses is to enable these decisions to be made with the best possible knowledge of the career options available (Karmel & Oliver 2011). The construction industry, along with many others, is moving to make these courses a mandatory prerequisite to an apprenticeship, provided they are delivered in a way that realistically mirrors the industry they support and includes a significant component (80–160 hours) of structured workplace learning (SWL).4

These courses also assist in separating the ‘pretenders’ (those who are there simply to make up the numbers or satisfy their Job Active provider) from the ‘contenders’, who have potential, passion and a clear aptitude for the selected apprenticeship. However, RTOs and employers engaged in these programs need to accept that a ‘quality before quantity’ approach is needed; that is, not all potential students who enrol are suitable for the course and final enrolment decisions should be based on the participant’s likelihood of success (completing the course and getting an apprenticeship) rather than on how much funding can be obtained.

This quality before quantity approach also extends to the volume of training involved. Whilst many parents, some high schools and RTOs believe higher qualification levels are more desirable; this is not the position of industry. In Queensland, construction industry pre-apprenticeship/pre-employment courses are pegged at AQF level I.

With national award rates of pay now tied to competency-based progression (Furniture Industry Association of Australia 2013) – the more competencies an apprentice has, the more pay they get – employers are looking for recruits with a small suite of competencies that make them safe and useful from Day 1, not instant tradespersons. It is unfortunately our experience in Queensland that construction recruits with a certificate II in Construction are virtually unemployable as they don’t have the on-the-job experience to match the pay required and thus are not economically viable. This situation was further exacerbated by the decision to increase first year and second year apprentice rates by more than 10%.

Consequently, structured workplace learning is also critical to ensuring the student ‘has the goods’ – possesses the necessary skills and attributes. It provides the student, the RTO and the employer/s with an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ and it is our experience at Hutchinson Builders’ own RTO that a full-time employment placement rate of greater than 75% can be achieved if all the above conditions are met.

Further, if the pre-apprenticeship training displays the following characteristics, then it is feasible that apprentices can be productive from day 1:

  • The training is conducted in as ‘real’ an environment as possible, for example, RTO campuses in industry settings or mirroring them.

  • Equipment, practices and personnel are current.

  • Employers are engaged and their needs are met.

Students who have undertaken pre-apprenticeship training that meets these requirements typically have 12 weeks of experience, including up to four weeks on the job, along with a basic understanding of how that industry/employer functions and their expectations.

NCVER recently published a paper comparing the motivations of German and Australian employers for taking on apprentices (Pfeifer 2016). While many trade-oriented Australian employers seem to share the German philosophy of apprenticeships being an investment in the future, other employers adopt more of a production (that is, substitution for ‘regular’ workers) model of apprenticeship training, which is focused on the short-term costs and benefits of training.

Some employers view apprentices as a liability rather than an asset and need support to understand how they play an integral part in the apprentice’s development and ultimate level of productivity. If apprentices are pre-trained to a level where they are safe, have a positive attitude, are proficient in the use of the basic tools of their trade and are literate and numerate, then it is a fairly easy proposition to educate a potential employer on how they can engage with a first year apprentice (on a pay level at 55% of their mentor/tradesperson) and develop them into an effective, productive team member. Ultimately, an economic argument, not an expectation of altruism, will win the day.

While ‘poaching’ other employers’ apprentices and skilled employees is an age-old tradition, particularly in construction, inevitably it leads to a shortage of skilled workers as the pool of competent workers decreases and labour costs increase. While ‘If not you, then who?’ is the central question, predatory recruitment practices are not the answer.

Training apprentices effectively

The modern training of apprentices has always involved three critical parties – a willing, committed apprentice, a competent RTO and an involved employer. If any of those three parties are not committed to the exercise, it will fail. RTOs have in some ways replaced much of the old historical master–apprentice relationship and many modern employers have a tendency to delegate the responsibility for the apprentice’s progress and technical skills to the RTO. Consequently, the RTO needs to make the training process relevant, current and flexible in order to meet the needs of the learner and their employer. The structure of our modern-day competency standards, which make up apprentice/trade qualifications, have undergone continuous change since the days of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) and are currently being re-cast to reflect performance evidence, knowledge evidence and assessment conditions.

However, all of this change and abnegation of responsibility allows employers to disengage from the development of apprentices, believing they only need to focus on providing on-the-job experiences. Often missing for the apprenticeship are some or all of the structural elements given below:

  • the RTO being cognisant of the employer’s business characteristics and needs

  • the RTO having the flexibility to match the training to the employer’s workflow

  • the employer being a willing, active participant in the training process and working closely with the RTO

  • the RTO being willing to be innovative in the way they deliver the training and matching the mode of delivery to meet the needs of the apprentice and employer rather than applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach

  • the need for the RTO to model modern productive practices and workplaces rather than retreating to simulated class environments in an effort to save money

  • the need for all parties to not only understand and meet the requirements of the training materials but also develop the apprentice’s capacity to adapt to evolving technologies.

Competency vs proficiency

While it is common for a particular apprenticeship to have an ‘expected duration’ or ‘nominal duration’ (Queensland Department of Education and Training 2015a), there is still a great deal of debate about when an apprentice should be signed off as a tradesperson. Some RTOs have taken quite a literal approach to the delivery of the required competency standards and cut corners, while some employers (because of a lack of understanding of the standards) criticise the quality of graduates but do little to facilitate a more acceptable standard.

The new standards reflect a need for performance evidence; however, there is room to eliminate much of the short-cutting and therefore criticism by simply setting proficiency levels as well as levels of competency. Using hanging a door as a context, a construction example is as follows:

The competency of hanging a door could be described as being able to size the door to the opening, fix the hardware and hang the door so it opens and closes correctly. Proficiency is being able to do all those elements plus add components of quantity, quality and time. For example, the apprentice is required to hang four doors in one hour with a gap around the door to a tolerance of minus 3–5 mm.

Eliminating the ‘quickie brickie’ mentality

Occasionally when skill shortages emerge, the temptation arises to cut corners in relation to the time it takes to train an apprentice. The intention of competency-based training was to de-emphasise time and concentrate on the attainment of competence; however, it is crucial that an apprentice has adequate time to practise and gain experience. The ‘quickie brickie’ and other similar accelerated training programs inevitably seek to undertrain workers in order to get them into the workplace as quickly as possible, but such programs rarely result in the worker achieving full capability or recognition as a tradesperson. There is always room to make the delivery of trade training more effective and efficient but not at the expense of cutting corners on trade skills practice.

Retaining apprentices – it’s not rocket science!

Depending on the trade and industry, the completion rates for apprentices stubbornly sit around the 50% mark (NCVER 2015), suggesting that nearly half of all the apprentices who start apprenticeships never finish. A number of reviews and investigations over the last 10 years into the reasons for the high rate of cancellations in apprenticeships share a common theme, as well as suggestions for increasing retention. John Mitchell and associates (Mitchell, Dobbs & Ward 2008), for example, in a study for the Australian Chamber of Industry and Commerce argued that: ‘Retention pivots on recruiting committed apprentices and giving them meaningful work’.

A study into the factors which cause apprentice cancellations in the Queensland building and construction industry, undertaken by Debra Wilson and Associates (2004), identified a number of key factors that contribute to cancellations:

  • A poor or inadequate understanding of the industry, occupations and job requirements by young people going into apprenticeships.

  • A lack of initial preparation which results in young people starting apprenticeships without basic employability and workplace skills — placing pressure on the young person and on the employer.

  • Poor or haphazard recruitment processes which can result in a poor match between the young apprentice and the employer.

  • Low wages in years 1 and 2 of the apprenticeship – a disincentive for young people to enter apprenticeships and stay in apprenticeships.

  • Poor treatment of apprentices by employers and poor or unreliable behaviour by apprentices – conflict in the workplace.

  • Poor or inconsistent training.

  • A lack of familiarisation which can result in some young people cancelling an apprenticeship because it is not what they want to do as a job or a career.

  • A negative image of building and construction industry careers. At present, these careers are seen as a second choice and a choice only for those who do not achieve a sufficient OP (Overal Position) score to pursue other options including university.

This study also came to the conclusion that 77.8% of cancellations occur in the first two years of the apprenticeship. Although this study was confined to construction apprentices in Queensland, its findings are useful in testing what retention strategies may be effective, given that the physically demanding construction trades will inevitably be the litmus test of any blanket approach.

Ten years ago at Hutchinson Builders, we had similar completion statistics as those described above. We were recruiting based on referrals from company members and networks; we were locked into a block release training system with little flexibility; and we relied heavily on our tradespersons to manage our apprentices. Even to this day, we continue to get enquiries from hopeful recruits who demonstrate that they have a limited understanding of the trade apprenticeship they are seeking, let alone the other 70+ careers available in this industry. Hence, Hutchies determined that it would adopt the Queensland study’s findings and implement a number of actions for retaining our apprentices:

  • We adopted the stringent recruitment and pre-trade training process described earlier in this essay. This includes a personal development program with subjects such financial management, nutrition and interpersonal skills.

  • We developed a ‘task based’ model of clustering trade qualification competencies together to enable our field coaches (tradespersons) to better engage with the training requirements.

  • We eventually set up our own RTO (Gold Coast School of Construction) to deliver the training, as we found that existing RTOs couldn’t provide the flexibility, innovation and responsiveness we required.

  • We developed our own Apprentice Development Coordinators, who as trainers and mentors work with our apprentices (internal and external) and their tradesperson/subcontractor coaches to ensure the apprentices meet their training goals and assist them to overcome any personal issues that might impact on their apprenticeship.

  • We engage the apprentices in a career-planning process that lasts for six years and takes them from apprentice to ‘future leader’.

Consequently, our completion rate stands currently at higher than 95%.

Direct hire vs group training

It would seem logical that, if employers are not in a position to adopt the approach described above, they could become a host employer of an apprentice from a group training organisation, with higher completion rates a likely consequence. The model given above could easily apply to group training organisations, which have at their core the pastoral care of their apprentices. Suprisingly, however, completion rates with group training organisations are only fractionally higher than those with private employers (Bednarz 2014). The reasons for this are unclear, but if apprenticeship numbers are to increase, it is important that the reasons be identified and addressed to provide SMEs with an alternative employment model for apprentices that can dramatically increase retention rates.

Sustaining the strategy

Change for change sake?

The endless changes that have marked the training sector partly explain the reason for the concept of apprenticeships being under pressure. It seems that every incoming state or federal government feels the need to scrap the previous government’s plans in favour of a new, more improved model, regardless of whether the old one was working or not. Consequently, it is difficult to successfully prosecute an apprenticeship strategy that involves a contractual commitment over four years if the ‘goal posts’ keep changing. Examples that spring to mind include:

  • New Apprenticeship Centres (NACs) to Australian Apprenticeship Centres (AACs) to Australian Apprenticeship Support Networks

  • industry training advisory bodies (ITABs) to industry skills councils (ISCs) to skills service organisations (SSOs)

  • the various iterations of Tools for your Trade

  • Apprenticeships and Traineeships to New Apprenticeships

  • the endless changes to national training packages, their content, nomenclature and funding.

When you couple these with other structural changes in the government departments responsible for training and the endless procession of new state and federal ministers responsible for training, it is little wonder that apprentices, RTOs and employers are more than a little confused.

What these three parties need from government is consistency and certainty: consistency in terms of how apprenticeships will be promoted, managed, delivered and funded, while providing certainty that what is being said and done will not change tomorrow.

Leveraging apprenticeships

Governments are in the position to leverage apprenticeships via their various capital works and other extensive purchasing programs. Some states have various iterations of Queensland’s Building and Construction Training Policy (Queensland Department of Education and Training 2015b), which requires principal contractors to ensure that a proportion of work (via a deemed number of labour hours related to the project’s value) on any capital works project is carried out by apprentices; for example, on a project valued at $20m there would be a compliance requirement of 12 000 hours of on-the-job apprentice training. This policy could be extended to include relevant non-construction work and furthermore be adopted by the Australian Government. An added incentive for employers would be a positive weighting in the tender process for tenderers who have their own apprentices.

In addition, governments also have the resources to promote good practices and the efficacy of apprentice training to increase the capacity and capability of Australia’s workforce at large.

Large employer responsibility

As Karmel (2012) notes: ‘Overall, a reasonable conclusion is that greater support for apprentices is needed if completion rates are to be improved. But the distribution of apprentices, with most undertaking their training with small employers, makes this a very expensive proposition’.

Large employers, by means of their own large workforces and equally large networks of suppliers and subcontractors, are in a position to influence the uptake of apprentices and demonstrate/encourage best practice models of apprentice development. This factor, in combination with the ‘Attract, Train, Retain and Sustain’ initiatives discussed previously, enables apprenticeships to be promoted and sustained and overcome the costs mooted by Karmel and Roberts (2012), irrespective of the industry context.

Hutchinson Builders5 takes this role seriously and has demonstrated over the past 10 years that apprentices continue to be the backbone of its future capacity and capability. The company is now rolling out its apprentice training program and other workforce development strategies to its ‘family’ of over 10 000 subcontractors and suppliers, and this will ensure that Hutchies continues to be an iconic link in the sustainability of the construction workforce both in Queensland and throughout Australia.

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