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

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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.


In the future, how can apprenticeships be designed to make them more attractive to individuals and employers?

David Carney, Executive Director, Career Industry Council of Australia

The federal and state and territory governments have for some time now been grappling with an apprenticeship system experiencing challenges around attraction and retention.

Apprenticeships have historically enjoyed solid support from employers and industry alike for delivering industry-specific skills development, quality outcomes and pathways to employment.

The challenge we face in Australia is to ensure that the decision to choose an apprenticeship becomes the new norm alongside other forms of further education. It is important that all options are seen as just as valuable and are just as valued and allow individuals to reach their full potential.

While significant and sustained efforts have been made over the years to raise the profile and status of vocational education and training (VET), including apprenticeships, unrealistic and unfair perceptions of apprenticeships still exist.

A strong apprenticeship system is essential to developing a highly skilled and qualified workforce, one that increases productivity and drives economic growth. There is a concern that there is a skills gap in Australia – that the future talent and skills pipeline is not as strong as it needs to be to ensure future economic success.

In working towards designing an apprenticeship system that makes choosing an apprenticeship an attractive first-choice option, some bold steps must be taken by government, industry, education and other stakeholders.

What role does career development play in a successful apprenticeship system?

Career development, which is the process of managing life, learning, and work over the life span, is an important element in relation to improving the attractiveness of apprenticeships. Career advice that is unbiased and of high quality can reduce the stereotypes and prejudices relating to apprenticeships among young people and their parents/guardians/carers.

Career development services are ‘intended to assist people, of any age and at any point throughout their lives to make educational, training and occupational choices and to manage their careers’ (OECD 2004a). These services include: career education; career information; career assessment and self-assessment tools; career advice; work experience programs; work integrated learning; mentoring; work; and transition services.

High-quality career development assists individuals to make well-informed and sustainable educational choices that match their capabilities. In order to support well-informed choices, it is important that individuals from an early stage, in primary school, are introduced to a broad range of educational paths and career opportunities, including apprenticeships.

Over recent years, governments across the world have devoted new attention to the issue of careers education enriched by work-related interventions. This combination is essential in improving the attraction of apprenticeships. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD; 2010) observed, such interest responds to change in the operation of the labour market:

More complex careers, with more options in both work and learning, are opening up new opportunities for many people. But they are also making decisions harder as young people face a sequence of complex choices over a lifetime of learning and work. Helping young people to make these decisions is the task of career guidance [Career professionals] need to be able to call on a wide range of information and web-based resources.

Strong links between schools and local employers are very important means of introducing young people to the world of work. Individual career guidance should be part of a comprehensive career guidance framework, including a systematic career education programme to inform students about the world of work and career opportunities. This means that schools should encourage an understanding of the world of work from the earliest years, backed by visits to workplaces and workplace experience.

A report by the OECD in 2004 confirms that if good career development is not available, poor employment choices and a mismatch between the skills required and those that people actually possess often result. Lack of good career development can lead to dissatisfaction with choices and careers, as well as with existing skills being under-utilised or ignored (OECD 2004b). These findings are consistent with the data on the Australian apprenticeship system. Individuals are making decisions to undertake apprenticeships in a particular industry without a good understanding of their own skills, attributes and work preferences, in tandem with a limited understanding of the apprenticeship system. This is resulting in higher than acceptable numbers of apprenticeship non-completions.

With no formal or legislated requirement for Australian schools to provide high-quality career development services, the delivery across the country is ad hoc and patchy at best. This lack of a national approach is resulting in young people making poor and ill-informed decisions in relation to undertaking an apprenticeship.

We want to improve the status of apprenticeships and ensure that individuals who decide to undertake such a path as a further education option are doing so equipped with the knowledge and skills that can lead towards successful completion. To achieve this, these individuals must be equipped with career management skills, as defined in the Australian blueprint for career development (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 2010).

Career management skills can be defined as a range of competences that enable individuals to gather, analyse and organise educational and occupational information, as well as the skills to make and implement decisions and transitions. In other words, career management skills empower the individual to ‘self-manage’ his or her choice of educational and career path. Given their important role, career management skills need to be embedded into the Australian Curriculum or into specific career development activities. This type of skill development has the potential to make apprenticeships more attractive to the young people who would otherwise consider leaving education and training.

If the role of the career adviser is important in increasing the awareness and status of apprenticeships and presenting them as an equal-status further education option for individuals, then career advisors need information from industry that ensures young people have a greater awareness of apprenticeships and pathways within industry, as well as opportunities to become work-ready. To this end, expansive collaborations with industry need to be established.

Industry also needs to be ready to support career advisers and other influencers by providing opportunities for individuals to experience the workplace and industry prior to making the decision to commence the apprenticeship. This can be done through work shadowing, work experience, structured workplace learning, school-based apprenticeships, industry days etc.

Career development services benefit individuals, but they also have economic and social benefits for the country:

  • If individuals make decisions about what they are to learn in a well-informed and well-considered way and the learning is linked to their interests, their capacities and their aspirations, and they are informed realistically about the opportunities to which the learning can lead, then they are likely to be more successful learners, with positive outcomes.

  • If people construct career paths and secure employment which utilises their potential and meets their own goals, they are likely to be more motivated and productive and therefore contribute to national prosperity.

  • The achievement of social equity, equal opportunities and social inclusion outcomes in relation to learning and work are facilitated by career development services.

Improving the attractiveness of apprenticeships and ensuring they are seen as valued and valuable as alternative further education training options cannot be achieved without a greater emphasis on quality career development. Individuals exposed to high-quality career development and equipped with career management skills will make better-informed decisions about apprenticeships and apprenticeship pathways.

How do you inform the key influencers in the individuals’ decision-making process?

Parents/guardians/carers are still the number one influencer of an individual’s career decision-making process.

Improving the attractiveness of apprenticeships also requires influencing the mind-set of parents/guardians/carers, who may have outdated ideas about apprenticeships; for example, the technological changes in traditional occupations or new occupations in fields such as green energy, media or sports. Improving the attractiveness of apprenticeships also requires that social and cultural norms be influenced.

Traditionally, parents tend to be most engaged during the primary years of their child’s schooling. This should be the time when schools start to build positive engagement strategies with parents, involving them in their child’s career development journey. Sophisticated parental engagement strategies involve multiple elements and attempt to engage parents through a range of methods, thereby increasing their chances of reaching the parents at different points in time. Pursuing a multitude of simultaneous channels of engagement is a feature of successful strategies.

Hosting information sessions can be an excellent way of providing parents with information, empowering them to be involved in a positive way as part of their child’s career journey, but, as the international literature argues, creating channels for two-way communication is essential to actively involving and engaging parents, as opposed to merely informing them. Information sessions are predominantly one-way exchanges, with hosts constituted as speakers and parents as a passive audience.

Engaging those currently studying an apprenticeship can be a great way for parents/guardians/carers to hear first-hand about what is involved in choosing an apprenticeship, how they work and the available career opportunities and outcomes upon the successful completion of an apprenticeship.

A well-informed group of parents/guardians/carers will lead to a more widespread understanding of the value of apprenticeships and the associated career opportunities. This in turn leads to a greater promotion and advocacy of apprenticeships and apprenticeship pathways.

Parents can also play a vital role in motivating students to remain in education and strive to achieve qualifications.

Why do employers want to get involved?

The engagement of employers is a crucial element for the success of an apprenticeship system. However, they often face a number of barriers to taking on apprenticeships, including a fixed length of training (often too long and with rigid start- and end-dates), which does not take into account the actual progress of apprentices; off-the-job training that is ill-adapted to the needs of employers; and high effective wage and non-wage costs associated with taking on apprentices, despite the fact that financial incentives are usually in place to reduce these costs.

Small-to-medium businesses (SMEs) can particularly struggle to identify the benefits of taking on an apprentice. Employers may find the return on their investment uncertain because apprentices may elect to move to another business or start their own business after their apprenticeship has been completed.

Although apprenticeships can be a challenge to some employers, they do offer benefits to employers, some of which the employers may not be aware. Some examples might include:

  • Apprenticeships allow the business to secure a supply of people with the specific skills and qualities that the business requires and which may not be available in the external job market. Recruiting apprentices enables employers to fill the skill gaps that exist in their current workforce as apprentices begin to learn industry-specific skills from Day 1.

  • Apprenticeships can help to secure a supply of skilled young employees – especially important for the replacement of an ageing workforce.

  • If the apprentices have a positive training experience during the duration of the apprenticeship, they tend to be more loyal and stay with the business, which can reduce labour turnover.

  • Apprenticeship training could increase interest in training among other employees and create a ‘training culture’.

  • Apprentices can bring new ideas and innovation to the business.

  • Apprenticeship schemes could result in an enhanced reputation for the business both within the industry and in the local community.

Compared with large businesses, many SMEs have a less advanced training culture and limited training budgets. An apprenticeship should be regarded as an investment and, as such, efforts may be needed to make SMEs more aware of the benefits and support accruing from hosting apprenticeships, such as providing them with skilled employees tailored for the business. Employers hiring Australian Apprentices may be eligible to receive incentive payments under the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Programme, which for SMEs may be an attraction.

Is it important to raise the quality and standard of the apprenticeship training?

The answer is yes.

Whether individuals find learning attractive largely depends on their relationship with, and the competences of, the teaching and training staff. This includes both on- and off-the-job trainers.

Trainers must be familiar with the demands of the world of work and the vocational skills the students need to acquire to meet these demands. Trainers must also ensure that they are updating their own skills and knowledge, incorporating what they learn into their teaching to ensure the apprentice completes the course with immediately useful skills.

A lack of confidence in the on-the-job training being provided is a significant contributor to non-completion or cancellation of apprenticeships by individuals.

What is the value of different models?

Pre-apprenticeships have significant potential to improve commencement and completion rates for trade apprenticeships. It has also been shown that pre-apprenticeships can help to prepare individuals (including at-risk and disengaged youth) for an apprenticeship, provide work-ready employees to enterprises and reduce costs for employers.

By signing on and completing a pre-apprenticeship the individual has shown a commitment to his or her career pathway, which is highly valued. The pre-apprenticeship course ensures that the individual is significantly better prepared to successfully complete both the workplace and off-the-job training of a full apprenticeship. It's a ‘try before you buy’ situation for both the apprentice and the employer.

Many people may have stereotyped and preconceived views of the professions and careers they consider pursuing. In order for people to make well-informed decisions, individuals need to be able to gain access to appropriate work shadowing and work experience. School-based apprenticeships provide school students with the opportunity to combine part-time practical experience in the workplace, formal structured training with a training provider, and completion of an individual’s school studies.

How do we grow the supply pipeline?

The labour market is constantly evolving. The situation for employees today is radically different from that of a generation ago. Individuals in Australia are more likely than ever to switch careers, to work for a range of big and small employers across their lifetime and to establish their own businesses.

Projections on future skills supply and demand are essential for governments and industry investing in the development of a sustainable pipeline for the supply of talent. But, to enable potential apprentices to make well-informed decisions about their future careers, it is also important that data and information are accessible and available to all.

Apprenticeships are about planning for the future skills needs of Australia and play a crucial role in training and preparing the next generation of skilled workers. However, future planning is impossible without career information that is well integrated, well publicised, comprehensive and of a high quality; it also needs to be specifically tailored toward apprenticeships and readily useable and accessible. This information needs to have the capacity to be accessed easily and more widely by career development practitioners and the general public.

Career development practitioners need appropriate initial and ongoing training and professional development to ensure they have the most up-to-date information about apprenticeships and future career pathways. In addition, practitioners have a role in providing professional development or support to those with influencing roles.

While individuals may have had access to career development services, there is a particular need to focus potential apprentices’ attention on the prospective career path prior to their signing up for an apprenticeship. In this way individuals will make the most appropriate choice of apprenticeship, while the amount of apprenticeship churn and drop-out will be reduced. Access to ongoing career advice and support throughout the apprenticeship is required to ensure that Australia has a first-class apprenticeship system.

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