• Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business, Stuart Robert.
    Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business, Stuart Robert.

Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business, Stuart Robert, explains why it is time to review the length of trade apprenticeships.

According to the National Skills Commissioner we need 86,000 completing apprentices each year.

Apprenticeships came with settlement more than 219 years ago. Back then an apprenticeship were eight years in length. These early trades included construction, farriers, shearing, butchery, the silk trades, weaving and beer making.

By 1855 they were reduced to seven years before dropping to six years.

Today we have traineeships and school-based apprenticeships.. And with each iteration of our modern economy, we have changed many things about the system. But one thing has stayed the same, skills are foundational and fundamental to our society and economy. Australia is a land built by the skilled. It's a nation built from sandstone and timber. Our national prosperity is built in the mines and on our farms.

After the First World War dropped apprenticeships to four years after starting at eight in 1640.

Could it be that it is time for us to look at a new approach and a new way? For those who enjoy travelling, I encourage you to see BHP’s training academy in Mackay, where all of their apprenticeships are done in two years, fully signed off and ticketed.

Is there an opportunity for us collectively, with the support of government, to lead the way on the next and perhaps final step of apprenticeships to break away from our current model? Whilst we all understand it is competency based and you can do it quicker, the vast majority don't seem to. Is there an opportunity to embrace what BHP is about and fully step towards a competency model that can collapse and condense as required?

Not long ago we were deeply concerned about what a 1-in-100-year pandemic would do for the state of our apprentices. We knew without massive intervention by government and industry, that our nation could be decimated.

It is quite extraordinary to stand here now, two years later and look at collectively what we've done. Over 220,000 trained apprentices right now, having commenced during the pandemic. It is extraordinary. It's not an accident, it’s a national endeavour driven by so many. $13 billion going into the skills system during that time.

The number of Australian businesses now serving with an apprenticeship is the highest in terms of trade apprentices that it’s ever been.

A million new jobs will be created across the economy in the next five years. We saw almost a billion created in the last five years. Data from the National Skills Commission, which tabled its first State of the National Skills Report last year, indicates that more than 90 per cent of new jobs emerging over the next five years will require post-school qualifications.

A sizeable 38 per cent of skills shortages are in occupations with a vocational pathway. They are facts, and they are not in dispute. In the early days of Australia, the demand for skills massively outstripped supply for workers. And here we are, 230 years later, facing the same issue. But unlike that time, we aren't going to prioritise the importation of labour, because today we have an option to skill our existing labour first.

We started in the 1600s when apprentices had to do eight years and now we’ve taken them to four. We can now look at new models to make it seamlessly easier to upskill the Australian workforce.

This is an edited version of a speech to the National Apprentice Employment Network’s national conference in Hobart last month.

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