CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Behind the skills shortage in the not-so-clever country
, March 26, 2005
The strong Australian economy, including the country's longest running housing boom, has exposed a national disgrace which has been brewing for more than two decades - the lack of a comprehensive and far-sighted approach to training in traditional apprenticeships.
Anyone would think that the problem has just suddenly surfaced in the past couple of months, judging by the number of people who have become experts on the "skills crisis".
Indeed, Treasurer Peter Costello was correct in telling Liberal and National Party MPs recently that it seemed as if "every parrot in every pet shop is talking about skills".
However, the fact is there is nothing new about the "skills crisis", and whereas the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition have been pointing the finger at each other, the culprits are many and are not confined to the major political parties.
Prime Minister John Howard also tried to deflect criticism from his Government by claiming that the skills crisis was merely a product of an "economy running at full capacity".
But the problems run much deeper and will remain even if the economy slows and unemployment creeps back up again - as it appears it is already doing.
The real culprits include corporate Australia; changing demographics, particularly the ageing population; years of government neglect of older workers who have been laid off during the long period of the destruction of Australian manufacturing industry; and an education system which has shown a disdain for technical and non-academic qualifications.
The culprits also include the bi-partisan push for privatisation of government enterprises, such as in the defence and electricity industries, and a similar bi-partisan push to run down others such as the railways.
They also include the private sector where large companies such as BHP have all but abandoned what they once saw as a social obligation to employ large numbers of apprentices each year, in good times and in bad.
Certainly, the former Hawke-Keating Labor Government appeared to fall for the idea that a university education was the key to success for school graduates - however dubious the degree.
Labor also was enthusiastic about creating many "new" universities from former colleges of advanced education, and in pushing the number of people who attained Year 12 to record numbers whether this was appropriate or not.
But the Keating "Clever Country" has given way to the "Skill-less Country" because, while there are record numbers matriculating into university, students have also shunned traditional trades or not been able to find employers to take them on.
The Howard Government, which is approaching a decade in office, cannot continue to blame the former Labor administration every time something goes wrong.
For some time, particularly under former federal Education Minister David Kemp, it has boasted about the record number of "new apprenticeships" it had helped create.
The Government was still boasting as recently as last week that there were 393,000 apprentices being trained in Australia, compared with only 144,000 in the last year of the Keating Government.
At the last election, it also promised to establish 24 new technical colleges throughout Australia - running a dual system virtually in competition with the states.
Recently, it has also flagged the idea of importing up to 20,000 new migrants each year with ready-made qualifications - as an emergency measure.
But the Howard Government has also permitted the establishment of "new trades", such as truck-driving, sales, cocktail-bar waiting, and fast-food service in response to what it says is market demand for jobs.
Labor criticism of the Government's new trades has provoked claims from Mr Howard that they are guilty of being "job snobs".
But name-calling and blame-shifting will not solve the problem, and it appears that the Coalition itself has been exposed for realising the extent of the problem far too late.