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

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Synthesis of views

There was a pervasive, cross-cutting issue raised in all three discussion themes — the need for increased and current data, trend analysis and evidence derived from targeted research to help answer the continuing questions surrounding why apprentices and employers are attracted, or not attracted, to the apprenticeship model and the reasons apprentices stay in or leave the system.

It was acknowledged that there have been many reviews in the area of apprenticeships over recent years and there is a solid base of research that identifies some of the critical factors, both in Australia and internationally. Recently, major reports in Queensland (Jobs Queensland 2016) and New South Wales (NSW Business Chamber 2016) spell out clearly some of the important factors in re-invigorating apprenticeships including early apprenticeship participation, sound industry-led career advice and restoring consistency, coordination and an outcomes focus to the system.

However, there are still ubiquitous questions surrounding the future success of the system. Many participants expressed the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the factors most open to influence, which would assist in informing cost-effective interventions at the right time.

There was a view that much of the current research focuses on specific elements of the apprentice experience rather than the whole picture, which doesn’t provide the linkages and ramifications that may be experienced by all players within the apprenticeship system. It was thought that the focus of future research could consider a more holistic picture of the impact on, and perspectives of, the three core parties involved — employer, apprentice and training provider — throughout the entire apprenticeship life cycle.

Participants agreed that the Apprentice and Trainee Destinations Survey provided valuable and comprehensive information about outcomes, underlying reasons for non-completion and levels of satisfaction from involved parties. This enabled key decision makers from government and industry to look at potential initiatives that could address issues and take up opportunities for enhancement of apprenticeships. However, the Apprentice and Trainee Destinations Survey was last conducted in 2010 so the information is now dated given high rates of change in industry and the labour markets, as well as the then impact of the Global Financial Crisis.

Another key source of information that some participants identified was the NCVER Pod Network (NCVER 2016b), a recent development which captures current international research and initiatives on a range of topics including apprenticeships and traineeships. Other key sources included the Australian Industry and Skills Committee website, with updates on training packages, and the Australian Apprenticeship Support network website (although some participants felt that while solid information was available through this website it was not utilised to its full benefit).

It was recognised that while there is significant information available for both potential apprentices and employers, there still seems to be lack of awareness of information and how to access it. This was particularly identified as an issue for people outside of the secondary school environment, and small and medium sized enterprise (SMEs) employers, as well as parents and career advisors in schools. Therefore, an opportunity exists to explore the channels required to disseminate information to different stakeholders and to also understand more fully how to raise awareness of where to locate support for diverse audiences.

Theme 1 – Benefits and value

Discussions clustered around a number of sub themes which are set out below.

There is much to lose if we lost apprenticeships

If we lost apprenticeships, Australia would be poorer — training would lack consistency and national portability, be narrower in focus and not strongly linked to employment outcomes. Small and medium enterprises in particular would bear the biggest with of a lack of access to skilled workers, and we would lose the safeguards currently in place for apprentices. In the longer term there were concerns that skill shortages in key occupations could occur.

Apprenticeship model versus apprenticeship system

It was clear that participants differentiated between the apprenticeship model and the architecture that sits around it — the system. The core of the apprenticeship model — the integration of on- and
off-the-job training and a strong three way relationship between the employer, apprentice and training provider — is widely seen as having stood the test of time and is still valuable.

However the system and architecture surrounding the model including Commonwealth, state and territory funding and regulatory arrangements were described as complex, inconsistent and often confusing, particularly for national employers, despite long efforts to harmonise and streamline them. Stakeholders also described a level of frustration by the policy ‘churn’ — continual shifts in policy settings which undermine employer confidence and engagement.

The view was that the process for design and development of qualifications has been too slow to keep up with rapid changes in industry and skill requirements, even withstanding the establishment of the Australian Industry Skills Committee and associated Industry Reference Committees. In addition, complex stakeholder engagement arrangements block quick action.

There was a plea to ‘de-clutter’ the system but in doing so, not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ — be clear about what is working in the apprenticeship model and preserve these aspects.

Employer, employee and training provider relationship

There was an identified need for a continued strong focus on the employment relationship in training, and that for successful outcomes there needs to be three way involvement and commitment between the employer, apprentice and training provider.

A true quality measure of apprenticeships is that of job performance following the apprenticeship, not just achieving the qualification. People need to be both competent and proficient in their role to add value in an employment context and to facilitate career satisfaction.

Full qualifications versus skill sets

The ongoing issue of full qualifications versus skill sets was raised, and is a key issue in rapidly changing work environments where employees may need to be upskilled or reskilled in response to structural adjustments. Then the question arises regarding who is responsible for funding initial, and ongoing, training, and who benefits.

Enhancing benefits and value

Other strategies which would enhance the benefits and value of apprenticeships and increase employer engagement in apprenticeships were identified during discussions.

Ensuring apprentices are more productive when they commence their apprenticeship enhances their economic viability for employers. Pre-apprenticeship programs were considered optimal for this purpose as they ensure apprentices possess some ‘job readiness’ and industry understanding from the outset. Ensuring strong recognition of, and support for, the role of employers in providing meaningful work placements was identified as essential as was mentoring support.

More screening of both employers and apprentices at the outset to build realistic expectations of both parties was identified as a crucial step — recognising that the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network providers currently offer support services such as mentoring and front end services to employers, apprentices and potential apprentices.

It was argued that changing the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to STEAM (with the inclusion of arts or creativity) will significantly enhance employability, adaptability and problem solving skills — making apprenticeships more rounded.

An option was identified to use new, non-traditional, higher level models of apprenticeships to reinvigorate interest in what has become (for some) an outdated brand.

A ‘back to basics’ approach was mooted and to consider whether the nexus between industrial relations and qualifications is as good as it could be to promote uptake and pathways. Open conversations between all stakeholders were recommended to consider the best design that is fit for purpose.

Third party intermediaries are important but there are some questions

The role of third party intermediaries such as Australian Apprenticeship Support Network providers and group training organisations (GTOs) were seen as important in providing a clear, coherent and simplified front end for employers and apprentices. This is particularly the case in relation to engaging with small and medium sized enterprises.

The discussion centred on the important role that the group training support model plays in maximising apprenticeship completions. With its focus on employer and trainee support there was an opinion that, given these strengths, completion rates would be higher than those experienced by some GTOs. It should be recognised that GTOs often engage with a more disadvantaged cohort of apprentices, adding layers of complexity to the operating model and an inherently higher risk of non-completion that needs to be managed by the GTO. A key outcome from the forum discussion was the need to understand how this model can best be leveraged to optimise apprenticeship completion, while still supporting individuals with disadvantaged backgrounds to complete their training.

Interest was shown in tracking and evaluating the impact of Australian Apprenticeship Support Network providers — the service is still too early to assess fully but has the potential to make a difference to the engagement of both employers and apprentices.

It should be noted that there is complexity inherent in the third party intermediary space with the potential for them to ‘trip up over each other’ and be competitive. There is a knowledge gap around who knows what and who does what. Strategies need to be in place for the key third parties to have meaningful conversations with each other to promote coordination, avoid duplication and minimise confusion for employers and apprentices. This could also enable identification of good practices, gaps in services and the formation of collaborative partnerships for the benefit of clients.

Extending the model and learning from others

There is value in investigating and considering international models which extend the apprenticeship model to new industries and higher qualification levels, including degrees. Australia needs to be open to learning from others. Israel’s investment in innovation was suggested as an example to examine for lessons in the Australian context.

In Australia the project being led and managed by the Ai Group, in collaboration with Siemens Ltd and Swinburne University of Technology, as outlined in the first discussion starter by Megan Lilly, will also test the apprenticeship model’s application to higher level qualifications. The project is using an apprenticeship framework to deliver a new diploma and associate degree in Applied Technologies, a response to the need for higher skills required for the emerging fourth industrial revolution in the knowledge economy.

Australia should identify and capitalise on good pilots within different jurisdictions which could be considered for broader application. There is frustration that our learnings from pilots and effective models are hindered by a lack of national focus and funding continuity.

There were some reservations about the impact of implementing new and extended models in any broader rollout. It is important that any new models are not transplanted or replicated without a robust evaluation to ensure widespread implementation is informed by evidence, so that the extension of the model to higher level skills does not compromise the strengths of the traditional trades model.

Using the term ‘apprenticeships’ in a non-trade context risks complicating the marketing of apprenticeships, which is already challenging, by mixing up messages and the products on offer. Perhaps consideration needs to be given to differentiating products through the use of different terminology such as ‘cadetships’; especially where these involve existing workers.

There may be challenges in engaging with the higher education sector to build apprenticeships in higher level qualifications. Many university courses are built on to focus on theory up front, and practice later in the program. Evaluation of the Ai Group’s project to identify how any barriers addressed will be important for similar projects in the future.

Features of the United Kingdom’s new apprenticeships model (Sainsbury et al. 2016) considered worth exploring include:

  • using a framework of occupational groupings that share training requirements for common, core skills

  • offering up to 12 months of tailored and flexible support (a transition year) to ‘at risk’ groups to increase access and retention

  • creating parallel technical and academic options both with high status, proceeding to high level qualifications and enabling pathways between the two

  • introducing end point assessment, covering both practical and theoretical elements, was strongly supported as a way of introducing greater rigour into our system and considered potentially workable in both trade and non-trade qualifications.

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