COVID-19 has had a severe impact on apprenticeships, and this is happening at a time when their numbers were already down!

This paper, from Business NSW, entitled ‘Skilling Australia for a better future’ says there may be lasting effects if something isn’t done.

Why is there a problem?

Business NSW reckons:

“Pre-existing skills shortages across a range of industries were evident prior to COVID-19 and will be exacerbated by a combination of a reduction of apprentices and a reduction in skilled overseas migration to Australia.”

Their research predicts that “without additional intervention beyond 30 September 2020, the number of apprenticeship commencements will reduce by around 36 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019.” (And the latest data from NCVER reports that, compared with the March quarter 2019, commencements had decreased by 11.0% in the March 2020 quarter.) “It’s entirely possible that 30-40 per cent of in-training apprentices will lose employment before the end of 2020 without significant recovery in the economy and extension of existing employer supports,” Business NSW says. They also believe it will take a few years, more than four in fact, to build numbers up again. Doing nothing, they think, isn’t an option, but doing something now is important.

Part of the problem highlighted in the paper is that apprenticeships are not being promoted as a good employment pathway. Others, that the paper doesn’t really talk about, relate to the employment conditions and wage conditions while training, as well as the willingness of employers to take them on, keep them on and then treat, train and support them well. Finding the right person with the right personal attributes can be hard too. In short, it’s really about getting new people into apprenticeships and keeping those that are already on the path to gaining their trade even in these challenging times. So, it’s about numbers, sure, but it’s also about the quality and value of the whole apprenticeship experience.

What does Business NSW propose?

They want Government support and money! Their first recommendation is that:

“Government should offer employers a wage subsidy of up to 90 per cent of new apprentice wages (or $540 per week) for the first year of training to support apprentice commencements.”

They also recommend keeping the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees (SAT) and JobKeeper programs going after 30 September this year and then phasing them out by the middle of 2021. In addition, they suggest Group Training Organisations should be offered a subsidy so that they can reduce their charge out rates to employers. And finally, they believe:

“Government should develop, fund and deliver a national industry-led pre-apprenticeship program.”

All of these recommendations, except possibly the last one on pre-apprenticeships, are of the most direct benefit to the employer, and that’s OK. But, even introducing and funding more pre-apprenticeships right now has its challenges with COVID restrictions still affecting providers’ use of their training facilities and the limitations to the numbers that can access their workshops and other practical facilities. There is also a backlog of practical work for VET in schools and traditional apprenticeships to be made up as providers have bought forward delivering knowledge-based components.

Strong support of the whole apprentice and traineeship system is needed right now, but in the longer term it’s also about making it a better experience and providing individuals with really good basis for the rest of their lives, starting with eliminating workplace bullying and offering a more holistic and high-quality training experience. As a recent TDA News editorial noted we need skilled and activated individuals to meet the challenges of new and changing technologies and work. So maybe while we need to address existing and pressing problems centred on numbers and funding, we must not lose sight of painting a bigger and better picture for our apprentices and trainees down the track? Paradoxically, COVID-19 has offered us lots of challenges, but it can also lead us to question and change current practices and thinking. And that’s not a bad thing.