There have been a series of newspaper articles and other work focused on student issues and the wrestle for student numbers where there are demonstrable shortages of those seeking and obtaining both HE and VET qualifications.

There is a particular focus in some quarters in getting young people to think trade as a post school option and career.

Recently the Australian published an article in which a senior HE academic “blasted the construction industry [particularly in Queensland] for trying to poach school leavers into apprenticeships through a “scare campaign’’ against student debt, partying and poverty.”

On the other hand, those in the construction industry talk about the natural advantage the HE sector has in its attractiveness both from schools and aspirational parents, and in particular as one construction industry luminary noted:

“We want to attract a bigger share of talent to our industry,’’ he said. “We want the best kids. Once upon a time an apprenticeship or a trade was the ugly cousin of university.”

Both unis and VET providers are now apparently facing falling enrolments, but there is a challenge to both in getting young students into their sector and courses. You can access NCVER’s June 2023 quarter data on apprentices and trainees here. It reports that commencements decreased comparing the June quarter of 2023 with the same quarter in 2022.

However, in the first article we cited above it was reported that “UA [Universities Australia] revealed last week that domestic student enrolments were on track to fall 1 per cent in 2023-24, following a 5 per cent drop in 2022.” Higher drops were suggested in some jurisdictions.

It’s a universal problem!

A report just released by NCVER and entitled ‘The impact of increasing university participation on the characteristics of apprentices’ takes a look at apprentice recruitment issues. Its authors, Joanne Waugh and Cameron Forrest, suggest that:

“Apprenticeships remain an important source of skilled workers in Australia; however, commencements have not kept pace with the skills demand projected in the previous decade. During that same decade, undergraduate university enrolments grew considerably. In investigating whether young people who would previously have chosen an apprenticeship have instead entered university, this study uses data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (LSAY) to compare the characteristics of apprenticeship-bound young people with those who are university-bound and to determine whether the characteristics have changed between 2007 and 2019.”

What they found was that:

“The profile of a young person who is likely to undertake an apprenticeship rather than enter university has remained largely unchanged since 2007. They had the following characteristics in that they were: “male, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Australian-born, speak English at home, have attended a government school, or reside regionally and rurally.”

Moreover, the study found that “adolescents still tend to hold limited and ill-informed career aspirations for themselves, meaning there is scope for career education to influence the decision to take up an apprenticeship.”

Finally, the paper reports that “some groups, such as women, more often commence apprenticeships later in life (age 25 years and over) and those choices are not reflected in this study [which focused on] 19-year-olds.”

On the other hand, this NCVER report points out that “migrants and first-generation Australians have become less likely than Australian-born young people to undertake an apprenticeship than attend university.” The authors suggest that this may be because “a larger share of skilled migrants than Australian-born citizens have completed a bachelor or higher qualification and we know that higher-educated parents tend to hold higher educational aspirations for their children than lower-education parents.”

However, while “more young people are selecting university study … there remains a significant pool of young people who may be attracted to apprenticeships through targeted career education and improved matching of career aspirations to study pathways.”

So, are these promotional activities by the construction industry warranted? Do we also need to live and let live in terms of student recruitment? As the report concludes:

“The overall population of young people is large enough to fill the available places in both further education pathways, implying perhaps that the question of whether young people remain attracted to apprenticeships reverts to the broader issue of appeal and opportunity. An apprenticeship must present an attractive pathway to young people, alongside their other options. Equally, for young people to take up apprenticeships there must be employers offering them and willing to support them.”

Finally, and in late breaking news, the federal minister has announced a strategic review of the Australian Apprenticeships Incentive System. You can access the minister’s press release here.