Back last November, when the Australian Skills Quality Authority released its 2014 annual report, a cold hard truth regarding the standard of training in the construction sector in Australia was laid bare.
According to that report, three out of every four vocational education providers audited throughout the course of 2013/14 had not been able to demonstrate compliance with the standard for a registered training organisation (RTO) which outlines requirements relating to the quality of training assessment. More than one in five were unable to present evidence of rectification even after being given 20 working days in which to undertake corrective action.
When audited, ASQA said, seven in 10 RTOs had inadequate assessment processes, while 58 per cent did not have the required staff or materials.
That report exposed a truth which was well known and still applies today. In recent years, Australia has seen a proliferation of new registered training organisations (RTOs) sprouting up and offering courses in building and other disciplines, but we have so many coming out of the woodwork, it is difficult to say how many of them have the resources, personnel or systems in place to guarantee that they are actually providing the skills required to do the job properly and safely on site.
Around the time of that report, then Australian Institute of Building national president Robert Whittaker talked of instances where trainers and assessors for these courses had little or no building experience and these courses were being managed by people who lacked practical expertise.
John Smolders, Conjoint Professor at the University of Newcastle, says standards have dropped a long way in recent times. Whereas back when he himself did his training, they did three months of every single trade, nowadays this is not the case and young construction managers are now coming into the industry and being expected to supervise tradespeople without having anywhere near the background with regard to the trades in question that used to be the case.
Others agree that standards are slipping. Whittaker acknowledged that genuine competition is never bad but went on to say "you have to question how many of these RTOs actually have assessors and trainers which comply with the requirements of the training packages, let alone ASQAs 2015 requirements for RTOs."
Builders Collective of Australia National President Phil Dwyer, meanwhile, talks of a ‘de-skilling’ of the construction sector.
Aside from the sheer number of RTOs, another interesting development in this area revolves around ‘accelerated learning’ courses. The Capital Training Institute, for example, suggests its students can achieve a Certificate IV in Building and Construction in a matter of 13 weeks - although it does stress that eligible students must be currently working with at least three years’ post-trade experience or six years’ worth of relative experience and says its students will have completed 1,555 hours of learning (including prior learning) by the time they graduate.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of challenge, however, revolves around the changing structure of the industry, which has seen a growing push toward subcontracting and increasing volumes of work done by self-employed people and very small businesses which do not have as much capacity to invest in training. Smoulders says this contrasts with the older style of training involving apprentices being employed by John Holland and the like whereby those training in carpentry, for example, would work alongside a carpenter for years and receive ongoing mentorship.
Whittaker, meanwhile, says he wants to see more to hold unsatisfactory training providers to account, and would like to see ASQA be more proactive in shutting down unsatisfactory training providers.
In order to build the houses and infrastructure it needs, Australia needs to train sufficient numbers of people in building disciplines and trades.
To ensure those who undertake training finish with a strong understanding of how to do the job right, however, we need to lift our game and ensure our training providers are held to much higher standards of accountability.