Apprentice bricklayer Mitchell Gill outside a job site. Photo: Daniel MunozPlunging apprentice numbers must be tackled so young people, and not imported workers, benefit from the Baird government’s construction boom, says Skills Minister John Barilaro.
New apprenticeships fell by 20 per cent in NSW last year, continuing a four-year decline.
Mr Barilaro says it is a “serious problem” and bold changes are needed, including raising apprentice wages to a liveable amount.
He has flagged a possible role for the NSW Skills Board in auditing whether 457 visas were being used by industry to fill genuine skills shortages with foreign workers, or had become entrenched in trades such as plastering and tiling.
Last year 10,000 fewer apprentices and trainees completed their training in NSW than a year earlier.
The Baird government’s $20 billion infrastructure program is set to drive a construction skills shortage in NSW unless more young people are encouraged to take up a trade.
Mr Barilaro believes the worsening completion rate is being caused by low wages.
A generation ago, apprentices were typically 15- or 16-year-olds who lived at home. Now they are 18- or 19-year-olds, who have completed HSC.
“Industry will hate this, but we may have to look at apprenticeship rates. Let’s be honest. A kid could leave school and become a labourer on a site and earn significantly more than an apprentice does,” Mr Barilaro says.
School career advisors need to change their message to promote the trades and not just university.
Some students would do better starting their work journey at a younger age, completing core school subjects within a vocational course, he argues.
“The reality is some kids don’t need to do year 11 and 12,” he says.
Master Builders Association chief executive Wilhelm Harnisch said the industry was concerned about the decline in apprentices in the construction industry, one of the few growth sectors in the economy.
But he said the work readiness of apprentices was a problem for raising wages. “Apprentices are paid to be trained,” he said.
The industry needed to find different ways to train young people, he said.
“Some people don’t need to finish year 12. They don’t have the willingness or academic capability to do that, but they could become extremely good tradesmen,” he said.
Mr Barilaro partly blames the emphasis on Australia becoming “the clever country”, the phrase coined by former prime minister Paul Keating, for career advisors neglecting the trades.
“Everybody thought it was a uni degree. A smart country actually has all the skills covered, and now we are paying the price,” he says.
His own experience – dropping out of an accountancy degree at university to do an apprenticeship as a carpenter – led to a flourishing career.
He says he hated classrooms, and learnt much from the workshop floor where he was taken under the wing of old master craftsmen.
His family business now employs tradesmen, and makes a point of paying apprentices above the award.
Enrolment data for TAFE NSW shows the top five courses in 2015 are Certificate III in electrotechnology, early childhood education, business administration, carpentry and aged care.
The average salary for an electrician is $70,980, exceeding the salaries of many university graduates, while carpenters earn on average $60,320.
Tuesday’s NSW budget will include $25 million for small scholarships to encourage 25,000 students to enrol in vocational training in the technology sector, an election pledge by the Baird government.
Trade training centres will be built in another 43 NSW government schools with $40 million in Commonwealth funding that was approved this year, after being put on hold since 2013.
UP TO THE CHALLENGE
At age 15, Mitchell Gill already had experience laying bricks. The son of a brickie, he would watch his dad do his “art”, and learn. “It would’ve been somewhere on the Northern Beaches. Just a small job, with my dad standing there, watching me all the way.” Now 19, he’s into the second year of a bricklaying apprenticeship and fully expects to see it through.
“I love it all. I love the art of it. Being able to do things by yourself, to be independent. It’s one of the toughest trades, but it gets better as you go on,” he said.
Mr Gill is increasingly becoming the exception. The number of people who don’t finish their apprenticeship is increasing, despite growing demand for skilled workers. Last year, bricklaying was added to the NSW skills shortage list. Other trades to make an appearance include plumbing, carpenters, joiners, electricians and panelbeaters.
Mr Gill, who left school to start work after year 11, has seen this first-hand. Many apprentices he’s known have given up. “People quit, or get fired – the boss will notice when someone’s not interested. You have to really take an interest in the trade to finish an apprenticeship,” he said. “If the apprentice isn’t asking questions, getting involved, they won’t last long.”
He acknowledges apprentices don’t earn big bucks. “You don’t earn loads of money,” he said. “I don’t save a whole bunch. Sometimes I’m able to, sometimes I’m not. You can make a lot of money when you finish. You can be a builder, or a site foreman.”
The key, he believes, is to get financial support. It’s rare for someone to complete an apprenticeship without some sort of monetary assistance from family. “Most of my friends who are tradies have support from their parents. It helps a lot. Most of them live at home.”
Mr Gill considers himself lucky that rent takes about a quarter of his weekly earnings. “It’s pretty good. I do get some help from my dad, which is essential.”
Another big cost is running a car – something Mr Gill hasn’t got to yet, which means an early start to his day. His alarm sounds at 5am each working day. “The train trip usually takes about an hour. I have to be at the station at quarter to [six]. I guess I’m saving for a car.”
Mr Gill said the longer you lasted in an apprenticeship, the easier it gets. “Put your head down, and work as hard as you can. The tough part is the first year. Your employer tends to test you, has you labouring a lot to find out how hard you can work. You get physically and mentally stronger.”
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