Traineeships are in trouble, but apprenticeships are in better shape than we’re led to believe

The Mitchell Institute has scoured the data on apprenticeships and offers a cheerier assessment than the headlines frequently convey. Apprenticeship commencements are flat to be sure, but they are not in terminal decline. The problem is that the headlines rely on figures that report apprenticeship and traineeship commencements together – and it’s in traineeships that commencements have been in freefall.

The apprenticeship story

Finding the truth in the apprenticeships debate (20 pages) is a well-presented guide to the data on both apprenticeship and traineeship commencements. And it’s true that apprenticeships overall have declined – but not in all trades.

There’s an elegant chart on page 12 showing commencements for plumbers, and carpenters and joiners, were higher in 2016 than in 2011. Commencements for electricians were steady over that period. There were sharp declines in some trade occupations, notably vehicle body builders, and small declines for cooks and hairdressers.

The report’s authors, Peter Noonan and Sarah Pilcher, propose explanations for the overall decline, including negative growth in full‐time employment throughout 2013‐2014, and low growth in 2015‐2016. In sluggish employment contexts fewer apprenticeship openings are available. The authors also mention structural change affecting trade occupations. There’s a clear impact, for example, on vehicle body builder apprenticeships with the demise of onshore car manufacturing.

Yes, there is a declining overall trend in trade commencements related to these factors. While urging continued attention to that decline, the report makes it clear that:

‘The decline in trade apprenticeships is not due to funding cuts, as they remain fully funded by the states and continue to attract Commonwealth Government employer incentives.’

Steep falls in traineeship commencements

Traineeship commencements tell a different story. From a high of around 250,000 in 2011, they plummeted to about 100,000 in 2016. That’s largely due to changed funding incentives. In 2012, existing workers comprised 44% of traineeship commencements. In that year, the report explains,

‘… in response to concerns about the proliferation of existing worker traineeships and to effect budget savings, the Commonwealth Government significantly tightened the criteria under which they would support existing worker apprenticeships and traineeships (and part time and casual traineeships) by limiting employer incentives to occupations on the National Skills in Demand List or in areas of skills shortage.’

Traineeships are an important training option, particularly for young people entering the workforce. But traineeship employment arrangements are markedly different to apprenticeships.

It’s important to maintain the distinction and to craft policy that supports both apprenticeships and traineeships. Reporting commencements as one figure rather than two separate figures both misleads us and fudges the distinction.