Australia’s training system is based on an outdated model and needs a fundamental overhaul, a leader in the construction sector says.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