The McKell Institute has just released a report entitled “Working, learning: Better supporting Victorian apprentices on the job.”

Apprenticeships are a key part of Australia’s skills development system, but – according to the McKell report – a skills deficit is being created by low training rates in key occupations in the technicians and trades and community and personal service workers occupation groupings.

Apprentice numbers in training have been in decline in Victoria, although numbers picked up in 2021. Completions have also been declining, affected in part by “the number of apprentices who cancel or withdraw from their training during their apprenticeship.”

The ideal

A successful apprenticeship system, as noted in the report, off the job training needs:

“first class vocational education and training courses and facilities, including Victoria’s TAFE network, to be delivering high quality learning”

And on the job training needs:

“the support and commitment of both employers and apprentices to practically apply skills learned in a real-world work environment. This includes a commitment by employers to passing on their skills to apprentices, and creating a workplace environment where that knowledge transfer can safely and productively occur”.

And of course, completion rates should also be high.

The reality

According to the paper: “In Victoria, individual completion rates for apprentices who commenced in 2016 was 52.9%, down by 2.5 per percentage points on the year prior.”

And Victorian completions are below the national average across both the trades and non-trades. Attrition therefore remains an issue and, as the report stated:

“Over successive years, the Young Workers Centre – which operates a community legal centre dedicated to supporting young people in the workplace – has experienced an increase in the number of Victorian apprentices reaching out with employment issues, including bullying, harassment, workplace safety, and both unpaid wages and TAFE fees.”

This and other research suggest that, usually, non-completion is not a provider issue, but rather an employer-related one.

What does the report believe needs to be done?

Basically, it gets back to better support for apprentices and more effective regulation, the report suggests. The current regulator is the VRQA. However, a 2019 evaluation of the VRQA’s performance found that “78% of apprentices and 62% of employers were not aware of VRQA and what it does.”

It’s also about fixing the on-the-job experience for apprentices and holding employers “more accountable for their poor actions that can hurt apprentices and undermine the apprenticeship system.” These actions include not getting the right support from the employer or workplace trainers, but also the effects of being harassed, bullied or discriminated against, being underpaid and being required to work in an unsafe workplace.

After all, employers have to be approved by the VRQA if they wish to take on apprentices, so maybe it is time, the report suggests, to ensure that all employers are really ‘fit and proper’ and are doing the right thing by their apprentices rather than (in the case of some) seeing them as exploitable, cheap or expendable labour.

Among other things, the report recommends that:

  1. Support should continue to be provided to Victorian apprentices to start, and complete, their training. (Experience also tells us that attrition starts early, and when the support is there attrition rates are generally lower.)
  2. Policy makers and regulators should increase the voice of Victorian apprentices in their deliberations to ensure issues relevant to apprentices are considered and addressed.
  3. Regulators should work together to share information and risk about employment and workplace related issues for apprentices.

In addition to the report, the McKell site also provides a link to an item on Channel Nine’s ‘A Current Affair’ about workplace bullying that may be of interest to VDC News readers.