Australia’s training system is based on an outdated model and needs a fundamental overhaul, a leader in the construction sector says.

Master Builders Association of Queensland Director of Construction Policy John Crittall says there is a disconnect between expectations on the part of either apprentices themselves or their employers and what can actually be realistically delivered in an on the ground training environment.

Crittall's criticism of the current system is based at least in part on figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) which show that around half of all trade based apprentices drop out prior to completing their apprenticeship and around that 60 per cent of those who do drop out do so in their first year.

He says part of the problem revolves around a discord between the old model based primarily around school leavers and the modern reality of older and better educated apprentices with more extensive financial commitments and about whom expectations are higher.

“What we’ve seen is that the old apprenticeship model was based on 15-year-olds leaving school at year 10, still living at home and starting their apprenticeship at 15 or 16,” Crittall said.

“[By contrast,] what we have today is a national goal to have 75 per cent of people finishing year 12 and the building industry says you can’t live near your job, so you must have a licence and a car.

“So we are getting 18-year-olds and still paying them at 50 per cent of a tradesperson’s rate. But an 18-year-old is far more likely not to be living at home, have far more pressures with rent and girlfriends with a workload model which is hard, physical, dirty, hot, dusty and in some places dangerous work.

“So there’s a misalignment and the industry expectations of what it expects from its apprentices has gone up significantly.”

Crittall’s comments come amid ongoing debate surrounding the challenge of increasing both the number of apprentices coming through and apprenticeship completion rates at a time when the industry needs more apprentices.

A report prepared for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union by University of Sydney Senior Research Fellow Phillip Toner last year found that the system was in crisis and the ratio of apprentices to tradespeople was at its lowest level in more than a decade. An environment of reduced training quality stemming from cuts to TAFE funding as well as structural changes within the industry was seeing growing numbers of very small firms operating within the industry along with an increasing push toward ‘short-termism’.

A further report published last year by NCVER’s Alice Bednarz, meanwhile, found that key reasons for apprentices not completing their training included not getting on with their boss or co-workers, not liking the type of work, and ‘personal reasons’ (i.e. family, medical or transport issues).

Crittall says there is no silver bullet solution to these problems but puts forward a couple of ideas. Allowing apprentices in trades for which licences are not required (e.g. painting, plastering, bricklaying and tiling etc.) to enter the conventional building workforce after two years, for example, would mean they could be paid as professional tradespeople after two years rather than endure four years at apprentice rates of pay.

A further possibility could involve more of an institutional model in which apprentices spent their first year in on and off the job as unpaid trainees with no employment contract, in a similar way to which one studies at university without pay.

He also suggests the training model itself could be reformed by, for instance, assessing apprentices for on the job work rather than through several weeks of block training at TAFEs – an arrangement which does not suit employers who are forced to pay their apprentices for time away but do not receive any benefit in respect of services provided during that time.

Crittall says failure to reform the system will have serious consequences, including a de-skilling of the industry, a greater reliance on modular components, a rising cost of labour and lower quality workmanship with more defects.

“There is a skills crisis that is looming because the GFC took an entire cohort of apprentices over four years,” he said. “So we will continue to deskill the industry and do more prefab work offsite rather than sustain the on-site component. The market waits for no person and if we don’t have skilled labour, we will have to go offsite and bring in more prefabricated materials.”

“In a broad sense, (Master Builders) would say that the current model is an 18th century class warfare model where apprentices are basically servants to their masters.

 “We think the world has moved on way past that and that we need to have a new model.”

  • The majority of construction apprentices are or should be employed through Group Training Companies. That takes care of all the vaguaries of employment by individual employers. That still won't stop the attrition of apprentices in the early years – only a decent wage will do that and averaging out the wage over the three (BTW – how long has it been since an apprentice carpenter or bricklayer spent 4 years in an apprenticeship?) years of the apprenticeship so that first year apprentices get more than working at a Fast Food joint will go a long way to fix that.

  • No, the training system is not broken. The problems can easily be fixed as follows:
    TAFEs and RTOs need to adopt new e-learning technology to allow on-site training. The internet means assessment can be conducted on-site, saving employers thousands. This system is working well wherever it is introduced.
    Apprenticeships and training funding needs to be linked to the student, not the employer. If the employer cuts staff, loses contracts, or doesn't pay a decent wage, the apprentice needs to be able to continue the apprenticeship with someone else. Apprenticeship wages set the minimum wage, and if an apprentice is worth more they need the flexibility to earn more money and continue their training
    The vast majority of people entering the trades are not teenagers. They are migrants and they value education. Employers and TAFEs should start offering apprenticeships to these people.

  • A complex issue, with a number of factors impacting apprenticeship completion rates.
    I'm currently managing a new education program / initiative with the aim of increasing industry, education and training standards. Through preparing students with necessary skills, knowledge and industry experience to be able to successfully complete an apprenticeship.

    Training also needs to be provided to employees to assist them with the difficult task of mentoring young apprentices.

  • Andrew, It would help educators and indeed employers if the Australian Construction Industry had a long term view of what it might be and how to get there. This predicament cannot be resolved by the states, its a national challenge. It is amazing that the industry now propping the Australian economy post the mining boom receives so little or at best piecemeal attention federally. Construction work and as a result construction jobs are changing dramatically across our region, but Australia is lagging. This will affect the trades just as much as the professions. If industry associations think we have a problem now (and I agree) just wait and see the training miss-match we will have in 10 years. The cost of supporting those who will be thrown out of work or need new training will hit the economy hard.
    There are enough indicators to see this coming. I have found very few in the education sector that can describe a future construction industry scenario.
    It is a very concerning situation. It is part of the reasoning why I have written and Sourceable has just published a series of conversations in this context expressly for start outconstructors considering a construction career in 2015.