The April Australian Employment Data showed the national unemployment remained steady at 5.7 per cent. Despite this downward trend in the last few months, however, the national youth unemployment rate for April still crept up to 12.3 per cent and in some parts of our cities and states it is now over 25 per cent.
The recent federal budget proffered a range of financial incentives to employers to help get young people into work and I am sure during the rest of the current election campaign we will see some more on this topic as politicians campaign in the electorates where this issue impacts the highest.
However, we must not ignore the fact that trade apprenticeship registrations and completions in Australia also continue to decline, with the National Centre for Vocational Education Research reporting that new apprenticeship registrations fell 20 per cent between 2014 and 2015.
You could argue that we typically see a decline in entry-level jobs during times of economic uncertainty, but in the last few years the rise of activity in the construction sector has been one of the positive drivers of growth in the Australian jobs market. The same NCVER research also showed that for apprentices who commenced a trade apprenticeship in 2014, the completion rate is expected to drop to 41 per cent - and alarmingly to 27 per cent in the construction sector - with issues with employers and career changes cited as key reasons by apprentices who opt out of apprentice programs.
This decline indicates that in Australia, we don’t just have a problem with employers providing enough entry level jobs for young people but also that as many of us already know, young job seekers themselves are turning away from trade apprenticeships because of poor leadership or a lack of understanding of the job. In other cases, they are turning their back on careers in the construction sector in favor of opportunities in the perceived “sexier” new economy.
This is a problem for the construction industry as we are already seeing an increase in demand for construction trade roles and this, combined with the impact our aging population is going to have on available skilled talent in the coming years, means the industry will need to take a leadership role to head off what is likely to be a major trade skills shortage in the future
Solving youth unemployment cannot simply be a situation where governments hand out more money to employers to hire more young people. While this will create more opportunities, it will not arrest the decline in registrations and completions, which are arguably a bigger issue for the construction sector right now if it is to ensure that it has the talent it needs for the future. Industry needs to work more closely with government and schools to ensure they promote trade apprenticeship awareness to the same degree they promote further education.
We need to look at ways to create greater practical exposure to construction trades for students so they clearly understand the nature of the work and make informed choices when the elect to pursue a skilled trades career. Many students do not clearly understand the nature and type of work, and without family members with construction experience, it may be hard for them to fully understand the nature of the work involved and whether they are well suited to it.
Finally, we need to lobby government to provide greater funding to apprentice training organisations in order to provide greater on-the-job support to apprentices and their employers over the course of their apprenticeship. Many employers of apprentices in the construction sector are small businesses without an HR department or experience in dealing with employee issues, and I have seen countless apprentices leave the industry simply because they were treated badly - and in some instances illegally - by unknowing employers.
We are seeing first hand that whilst the construction sector plays a positive role in reducing youth unemployment as one of Australia’s largest employers of apprentices, that it is also starting to suffer an image problem that needs to be addressed. By engaging government, industry and the young people themselves we will ensure we have the “tradies” we need for the future.