Apprentices have been a big-ticket item in the election campaign for both the major parties.

Where are the shortages, and where are the labour market opportunities?

What are the major parties promising?

The Liberal Party is promising that:

“Over the next five years a further 80,000 apprentices will be created in occupations with skills shortages, through incentive payments for employers and apprentices.”

This was outlined in some detail in a recent article in VDC News.

The Labor Party’s national platform promises more apprenticeships and traineeships and Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech that they “will help train 150,000 apprentices for the jobs of the future.”

What’s the current picture?

NCVER historical time series from 1963 until 2018 released late last year shows that apprentice numbers in training rose to a peak of over 215000 in 2012, but have been declining ever since – although things seem to have stabilised in 2017 and 2018. NCVER’s infographic shows there was a steep rise in apprentice commencements from 1995, peaking in 2012 and declining ever since.

Trades in shortage

Information about skill shortages is available on the Department of Jobs and Small Business website. The ratings summary page shows that trades in shortage include auto electricians, motor mechanics, panel beaters, vehicle painters, a wide range of construction trades workers, electricians, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics,  a number of occupations in the food trades – but not chefs, hairdressers, cabinet makers and a number of the metal trades. Finally, aircraft maintenance engineers are also in shortage nationally.

The labour market for apprentices

The same departmental website also provides information about the labour market for apprentices. It shows that around 70% of vacancies were filled in 2017, up from 62% in 2014. The Department reports that:

“While there is generally robust competition for apprenticeship vacancies, employers regard many applicants as unsuitable and there are opportunities for strong candidates to stand out.”

They usually have a choice of candidates too, around 29 applicants per vacancy, but only around 5 of these were suitable. The proportions of vacancies filled were highest in electrotechnology, and lowest for hairdressers. And there was variation across states in the proportion of vacancies filled. Employers in hairdressing and automotive reported the highest levels of difficulty in recruitment, while electrotechnology reported the lowest – although still significant – at 48%.

What employers are looking for?

Employers of apprentices are looking for many of the same characteristics as employers seeking skilled workers more generally: a genuine interest in the trade, a strong work ethic and a positive attitude. A driver’s licence is also useful to have. Literacy and numeracy are also considered important, particularly in the electrotechnology trades.

How do they get their apprentice?

The majority (54%) had been approached directly by someone seeking an apprenticeship in the past year, but employers also sought an apprentice by approaching a TAFE or school (30%) or had successfully recruited an apprentice by word-of-mouth in the past (20%).

What are the barriers?

Employers see themselves wasting time and resources screening out non-genuine or unsuitable candidates. Often they have to compromise their standards to take an apprentice on too. There are differences in whether employers prefer younger or older applicants. “Around half the surveyed employers expressed a preference for younger apprentices, often citing wage factors, a desire to train staff from the ground up, or to teach “the right way”. However, others note the advantages mature-age (25 years and over) apprentices have through more work experience and being more reliable.

So, this all begs the question, that while both major political parties want to increase apprentice numbers, will it be that easy? After all it takes three to tango: an employer, a prospective apprentice and a training provider! Better incentives will likely be the key to employers’ hearts.