Geoff Crittenden | Chief Executive Officer, Weld Australia
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s newly announced JobMaker program hinges on a skills-led COVID-19 economic recovery.
And yet, Australia’s largest, oldest and most essential vocational education provider, TAFE, has had courses and budgets slashed over the last 10 years. Cuts to TAFE funding have had a severe impact on course and campus closures, attraction and retention of teaching staff and workload.
The result? TAFE graduates who are under-skilled, and an Australian industry that is faced with a severe skills shortage.
The Prime Minister must invest in our exceptionally under-funded and outdated VET system to ensure that Australian industry is equipped with the skills to lead the post-COVID-19 recovery.
The State of the TAFE Sector
The Australian Education Union (AEU) released a once-in-decade survey in early July. With responses received from over 1,400 AEU members from every TAFE institution across Australia, the survey results reveal the true impact of budget cuts across the sector.
According to the AEU, since coming to power, the Federal Coalition has cut $3 billion from vocational education funding, and overseen a 24.5% decline in TAFE enrolments.
In 2019, the Morrison Government also cut $3.9 billion from the infrastructure-focused Education Investment Fund, cut $325.8 million in funding from TAFE budgets, and diverted $200 million of vocational education funding from TAFE.
TAFE staff are demoralised—and it’s little wonder. Increasingly, TAFEs and their teaching staff are expected to deliver more work, with much less funding. More than two thirds of AEU survey respondents (68%) had experienced courses being cut in the last three years, with a lack of funding cited as the most common reason, and 81% of respondents reported departmental budgets being slashed. Nearly half (49%) of those in teaching roles said class sizes had increased.
Current levels of TAFE capital works and equipment investment were considered inadequate and requiring of some or significant investment by the vast majority of respondents.
A Looming Skills Shortage
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Australian industry was already facing a looming workforce crisis, including a severe shortage of skilled, qualified welders. According to a recent employment
outlook survey in Australia, skilled trades workers (such as electricians and welders), engineers (electrical, civil and mechanical) and technicians are scarce[i].
This skills shortage is compounded by a rapidly aging welding workforce, with approximately 30% of Australia’s existing welding workforce aged over 45 years. This heavy proportion of older skilled trade workers, particularly welders, puts into focus the looming issues that industrial sectors are likely to face when baby boomers finally reach retirement age—welding positions will simply become impossible to fill, particularly given the projected increased demand.
Welders were more in demand than ever with several large-scale, high-value projects on the horizon, from the Federal Government’s $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Program, through to major infrastructure projects such as the $12 billion Sydney Metro project, and the $5 billion Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
Attracting and retaining younger talent through engaging, well-funded training and apprenticeships is critical to combatting the severe skills shortage.
Invest In Australia’s Exceptionally Under-Funded, Outdated VET System
There is an overwhelming imperative to invest in Australia’s exceptionally under-funded and outdated VET system.
Australia’s TAFE institutes were once the backbone of Australia’s vocational education sector. They were stable, well-funded, trusted, and publicly accountable. They provided a comprehensive range of courses, oversaw apprenticeships, and created innovative curricula and teaching methods.
However, successive State and Federal Governments have slashed funding to TAFE. And, under one of the most ridiculous policy experiments ever undertaken by Australian governments—the marketised delivery system—TAFE is now forced to compete with private providers for student dollars. Under the marketised delivery system, TAFEs must provide a full range of courses across all campuses.
In comparison, private providers are allowed to cherry-pick courses, offering only the most profitable products possible, delivered only on those campuses where they’re assured of strong demand. Not only that, private providers do not face the strict government oversight borne out by TAFEs, and can entice students via a range of incentives.
Given the chronic lack of funding, job cuts, and the dismal failed policy experiment of marketised delivery, TAFEs simply have not had the capacity or capability to upgrade or modernise courses and curricula, or to develop new qualifications designed to capitalise on the emerging needs of advanced manufacturing.
Welder training in Australia is outdated and underfunded. The TAFE welding course and curriculum has not been updated or revised since 1995. It bears no relation to what is actually required by industry. The course still devotes time and energy to oxy-acetylene welding, which industry has not used for about 20 years.
TAFE has been required to teach courses such as fabrication, in which the welding modules are of varying degrees of complexity, and are usually optional. This has not produced welders that are skilled or qualified to the levels needed by industry, especially within the defence sector. Young welding apprentices enter the workforce without the requisite skills or knowledge. Generally speaking, TAFE graduates cannot read a welding procedure, set up a welding machine, or weld according to Australian Standards. It is a disgrace.
Australia’s TAFE system requires a shift in thinking and a focus on the skills that will be essential to the future of industry. Skills focused on advancements such as automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing processes.
TAFEs must look to cutting-edge technology to transform welder training from boring theory and text books into high-quality interactive experiences that capture the imagination. This introduction of state-of-the-art training technology must be coupled with an in-depth review of the TAFE welding curriculum that meets industry demand—not one that is bogged down by the traditional conflict between the unions and industry groups.
Our young people need to acquire complex, high order technical knowledge and skills. They need robust, deep and transferrable qualifications that provide a strong base for life-long learning and skill development. They need a TAFE system that is properly funded.