New research from NCVER looks at data on trends in training activity and completions.

It also provides details on the application of incentives as well as highlighting international apprenticeship models and practice.

A big program of apprenticeship research!

The most recent research from NCVER is part of a larger research program which is “investigating training practices relating to traditional trade apprenticeships, with a view to developing policy directions on how to maintain their relevance and usefulness.”

The first two reports have been published. The first is entitled “Traditional trade apprenticeships: training activity, employer incentives and international practices.” A second is “Traditional trade apprenticeships: learnings from the field.”

Data from NCVER shows that in the last 12 months to the end of September 2019, commencements were down 1.3% on those of the previous 12 months, but completions were up by 3.2%. Cancellations were down slightly. The September quarter for 2019 showed an upturn in commencements and completions, but that was before the coronavirus hit. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth has announced a package of initiatives to soften its blow for apprenticeships and in other areas. Over time, though, “an analysis of the data on traditional apprentices shows that the demand for traditional trade apprentices has been relatively stable over the last 15 years, with changes in demand generally aligned to the prevailing economic conditions.”

What else do these reports tell us?

The first message from the paper looking at training activity, incentives and learnings from overseas is that apprenticeships are not uniform across states and territories. More particularly, their nature and content has been affected to varying degrees by structural adjustment and technological change in their respective industries.

A second message concerns apprenticeship incentives, particularly for employers. The paper argues that “the nature of the base employer incentives that apply to the traditional trades have remained relatively stable, although the value of the base incentives in real terms has declined since 2012.” The extent and nature of incentives for employers can be quite contested area in policy terms, however.

Third, there are things we can learn from practice overseas. The dual system in Germany and other European counties is often seen as the ‘gold standard’ here in Australia, but the paper points out that there are similarities between Australia’s system and the ones operating there. However, in other regards there are things we could consider adopting here: for example,

“better synchronisation of knowledge acquisition and skills development in off-the-job and on-the-job training venues; higher levels of prescription and expectations about the nature and level of the qualifications required of teachers and trainers; regular monitoring of the market for apprenticeship training positions; and industry involvement in practical assessments.”

The companion volume, learnings from the field, “collates material from in-depth interviews and focus groups with employers, trainers, apprentices and relevant government officials about what is effective in apprenticeship training, what is not, and what needs improvement.” It found that there was strong support from all those consulted to maintain, largely unaltered, the current elements of apprenticeship training for the traditional trades. Nevertheless, there seems to be a feeling that elements of training packages could do with modernising and outdated Units of Competency could be removed. In addition:

“Collaborations between training providers and employers with access to modern technology were … useful in keeping apprentices up-to-date with current developments.”

For their part, apprentices sometimes felt challenged by managing their release for off-the-job training, in understanding the theory components of their course, and in managing interpersonal interactions at work.

Training providers pointed to the high administrative burdens that compliance with VET regulatory frameworks place on their trainers and their managers, and this – they feel – affects their teaching and training adversely.

Finally, the changing nature of trades and the increasing specialisation by firms means that some employers believe that training providers should focus on the skills not regularly practised in the workplace to allow the apprentice to spend more time learning the skills of the broader trade. From our perspective, this means that providers must know the nature of the firms they work with to help them design and deliver programs accordingly.