Statement on Vocational Education


I rise today to speak in response to the ministerial statement by the Minister for Skills and Training, the Hon. Brendan O'Connor MP, the member for Gorton, who, for a long time, was a neighbour to the seat of Lalor. For many years we shared similar constituencies with similar concerns.

The statement made by the minister is about revitalising national planning of vocational education and training. It's an important statement because it outlines to the House the direction that this government is taking. That direction is being driven, in the first instance, by the skills shortage that we've inherited, which is global. Unfortunately, Australia has been identified as having the second-highest skills shortage in the OECD. It's not something that we should be proud of. That is driving this new direction, as is as our critical understanding that we are in a transformational economy and we need to shift, be agile and plan carefully. We need to ensure that what we do is evidence based, that we're not clutching at straws. We need to ensure that the plans we have and the training we provide our young people in this country will lead them into a future, into a career path and into work where they can progress over time and where their lifelong learning has a good foundation. The outlining yesterday of this new direction was critically important.

The minister outlined for us that Jobs and Skills Australia has replaced the National Skills Commission. He outlined two fundamental reforms implemented by the government in skills and training. As I've said, that current situation around the skills shortage is quite dire. We have a skills priority list that nearly doubled in 2021-22, and the occupations where the shortages were went from 153 identified occupations to 286. So in coming to government we were on the back foot from the outset before you look at the transformation that we are planning in cleaner energy, before you look at the way the economy must transform to meet our climate targets but also to remain a leader and to keep our pace as the globe changes and as other economies shift and change.

This skills shortage was highlighted March 2022 by the former National Skills Commission, which predicted in their report that nine of 10 new jobs would require postschool qualifications and, of those, four of the ten would be requiring vocational education and training. The report released on Tuesday highlighted that, in the year to May, 91 per cent of total employment growth was in occupations that require postschool qualifications and over half of them require vocational education and training. So the need is critical.

I'd like to congratulate and commend the minister on the planning that's gone into the new direction. We've got a huge challenge, and it's critical we ensure that we've got a framework to not only cope but to thrive. We've got to ensure that younger Australians, like the young people I represent, are given the opportunity to thrive.

That planning for our skills and for our economy needs to be timely. It needs to be high-quality, it needs to be evidence-based and it needs to be tested for veracity against firsthand knowledge in the industries where those shortages exist. The response is the establishment of Jobs and Skills Australia and the establishment of 10 Jobs and Skills Councils. These are strategically linked to ensure that what we provide is effective, structured, national and sector based, and that the planning frameworks are modern, timely and targeting the skills development that's needed.

Both the Jobs and Skills Australia and Jobs and Skills Councils have been developed after extensive national consultation, and they've got support—most importantly—from the stakeholders. Changing direction and meeting the demand and the challenge that we've got before us means that we need all of these stakeholders onboard. We need employees, we need employers, we need our unions, we need the peak bodies, we need state and territory governments, we need vocational education providers and we need universities. All of those stakeholders have been involved in the consultations around this new direction.

Both the JSA and JSCs will have a tripartite approach. That is, there'll be extras at the core of the governance and their programs who are working directly with industry. Employers, unions and governments will be the three arms working together, because we—and I as a former educator—have seen in the past and mourned a lack of direction. There seemed to be a scatter-gun approach of: 'Oh, there's a shortage here. Quick, everybody rush over and try and fix the shortage,' but who is at the table to make the decisions about how we would fix those things? Sitting in committees since coming to government, and in the nine years prior, we've been listening to young apprentices come and tell us that they're doing their apprenticeship and they're fixed in the modules they have to do. But, where government was assuming there were options and they could choose parts of their apprenticeship, we found that actually that wasn't happening on the ground. So we've got electrical apprentices who are still learning what we needed 20 years ago and who are blocked from what we need them to have for this new economy and for this transformation.

So it's critical that we get the right people in the room and that they're at the table. This includes people from those industries that are going to be leading this transformation. It's imperative that we ask the right questions of the right people so that we get this right the first time, and every time, so that what we implement is evidence based and so that we know that the courses we're providing will lead to employment and build the basis for lifelong learning so that people can shift and change across the course of their lives to continue to be employed, for all of the reasons that we want people to be employed: so that they're productive, so that they have purpose and so that life has dignity. This will also ensure that we're building the right kind of economy and that we've got the right people in the right places. We want to avoid error and waste. We need government to be asking the right questions of the right people, and we need government to be listening deeply to the experiences of those who have been on the ground.

I want to pause there and commend the minister for this approach, because it is very easy in government—and it's very easy as a local MP—to have someone come to you with an anecdote and, from that anecdote, to generalise and have a single anecdote inform policy, rather than do the deep dive and actually ask people on the ground: 'So, this course that has been running, is it working?' I want to add that I have absolute faith that this minister understands electorates like mine—most importantly, upfront. He understands the people who live in my electorate. More importantly, he has lived experienced of the vocational education and training sector in electorates like mine. He knows how quickly a TAFE campus can be closed—rather than shifted, modernised or changed in its direction—and how things can be taken away from the western suburbs of Melbourne, requiring our young people to travel further and further. He understands that they can then pop up again because there's an individual need, but not be built with the longevity that we need and not be built with the capacity to shift and change.

The direction that this minister has set for jobs, skills and training in this country is most welcome, and I look forward to working with him. I look forward to being part of the feedback process as we roll this out, and I look forward to having the comfort of knowing that we have industry, unions, employers, employees and state and territory governments, as well as vocational education and training providers, at the table to make the decisions we need to ensure that we have timely movement and informed decision-making at the heart of this.

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