Vocational training programs must go beyond traditional trades, say experts

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  • The government’s vocational training policies have not been fair enough to address the country’s skills shortage.
  • Experts say more needs to be done to expand opportunities for vocational education and training focused on emerging industries.
  • New data suggests the country will continue to face a deficit, even if the border fully reopens.
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Australians are entering the trades at the fastest pace since the pandemic began – and a record number of university attendances – but more needs to be done to expand training opportunities focused on the future of work, according to the experts.

As the number of young Australians enrolled in university has soared to almost 50%, the highest cohort on record, industry and researchers say a growing preference for higher education is driving talented young people away from emerging industries accessible through vocational training.

Amid a national skills shortage, the government must do more to expand vocational education and training opportunities geared towards emerging industries, they say.

More people have rushed into higher education since the start of the pandemic, with data from the Productivity Commission showing that 47.8% of people under the age of 25 are now enrolled in a bachelor’s degree. However, recent data shows that many students’ financial outcomes would likely be better if they pursued vocations.

Grattan Institute Research analysis of historical earnings and education records revealed that young Australians with low ATARs who decided to go to university were likely to earn less over their lifetime.

The conversation comes amid a skills shortage that has been exacerbated by two years of closed borders during the pandemic, as well as a loss of foreign workers.

Rise in skills training not enough to meet the future of work, experts say

Peter Nolan, managing director of industry training organization PEER, noted there was growing recognition that the next generation of work — which he called “Industry 4.0” — offered a wealth of new opportunities outside of academic qualifications.

“There is a significant portion of the exciting automation and artificial intelligence challenges that require tradespeople to build, service and maintain equipment that enables automation and advances in robotics,” said Nolan.

Similarly, Peter Hurley, a higher education researcher at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, noted policy makers needed to create better vocational education and training (VET) courses to give young people better options outside of universities and traditional apprenticeships.

“Young people are going to college and doing apprenticeships in record numbers, but there is a need for other high-quality options,” he said, highlighting roles in business, hospitality, elder care and child care.

In the tech sector, which has also struggled to find talent in a limited local pool, industry leaders have reported for years that private skills-upgrading programs have grown in popularity due to a gap in government-funded training relevant to the sector.

Lambros Photios, founder of Sydney-based software developer Station Five, told Business Insider Australia that many big companies are losing out because of their insistence on hiring college-educated workers.

“Universities can’t create courses fast enough given their current operating procedures because the time it takes to create a course would already render the technology obsolete,” he said.

Push for vocational training

Data from the National Center for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) shows that 3.9 million people were enrolled in vocational education and training last year.

However, up to 2.4 million of them were taking short courses such as first aid and construction safety rather than full professional jobs.

And while national figures show an increase in the number of participants and completions of apprenticeships and work placements in the trades in the June quarter of 2021, this was not enough to offset the larger declines in recent years.

In New South Wales, Labor leader Chris Minns said that while there was an increase in training and term completion from June 2020 to June 2021, fewer students were completing their training.

“The decline has affected all sectors over the past year with a 12% decrease in workers in the construction trades, an 18.9% decrease in workers in the food trades and a decrease of 20.2 % of skilled animal and horticulture workers,” Minns said.

But NSW Skills and Training Minister Alister Henskens said the state’s free apprenticeships and work placements resulted in 40 per cent more students starting an apprenticeship or work placement in 2021 than in 2019 , before the start of the pandemic.

Federal Skills Minister Stuart Robert said the rise in numbers was proof that government programs like JobTrainer, along with its $2.7 billion increase in early learning, had helped bring young people to find a job and keep them there.

“We start 2022 with nearly half a million job-ready Australians up-skilling or up-skilling with over 270,000 JobTrainer registrations and the highest level of business apprentices ever,” said Robert .

However, these increases in the apprenticeship track may not be enough.

A recently published report by Infrastructure Australia found that a slew of massive infrastructure projects underway across the country will ramp up over the next three years as spending on these projects doubles.

This could lead to a shortage of some 100,000 skilled workers in the infrastructure sector alone.

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