Global Apprenticeship Network Conference 2023

This story was first published on Friday 10 February 2023.

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The future of apprenticeships: Perspectives from Switzerland, New Zealand and Australia striving for excellence

Keynote address: Professor Peter Dawkins AO



Thanks Gary [Workman, CEO, GAN Australia], Dean [Chair, GAN Australia] and Aunty Joy for the introduction and welcome.

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who have cared for this land on which we meet today – the Kulin nation – for tens of thousands of years, and still care for it today.

In addition to his video message, the Minister has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to attend in person today.

I am delighted that I can be here this morning in one of my first speaking engagements as the Director of Jobs and Skills Australia, which is in its exciting establishment phase.

I am a passionate believer in work-based learning in general and apprenticeships in particular.

And I do want to acknowledge the good work that the Global Apprenticeship Network does in sharing best practice in apprenticeships in particular and work-based learning in general across the world.

The importance of apprenticeships

I know that none of us here in this room (and online) today need convincing of just how important the VET system is and indeed how valuable apprenticeships are.

Apprenticeships offer a valuable skills development pathway, combining training and employment, helping workers gain the skills needed in Australia's workforce.

Apprenticeships can be done by anyone of working age, give Australians the chance to learn and earn, and can be completed in over 500 careers and jobs.

Importantly, apprenticeships produce a pipeline of highly skilled workers the Australian economy depends on.

As the Minister stated earlier, apprenticeships are vital to creating opportunities for Australians to prosper.

Of course, the tight labour market and persistent skills shortages, post‑pandemic, present challenges.

But they also provide an opportunity for government and business to ensure Australia’s apprenticeships system is equipped to encourage more Australians into training.

Apprenticeship policy initiatives

I know that if the Minister had been able to be here today, he would have spoken to you about the many initiatives the government is taking to strengthen and support the Australian Apprenticeships system.

So, before I turn to my own observations about VET and particularly apprenticeships, let me mention some of those policy initiatives on the Minister’s behalf.   

  1. The Government is funding a new Australian Apprenticeship Incentive System to address skill shortages, improve completions and ensure supports are accessible.
  2. The Government has also committed to the Australian Skills Guarantee, ensuring one in 10 workers on major Government funded projects are an apprentice, trainee or paid cadet.
  3. In addition, it is supporting 10,000 New Energy Apprenticeships to secure the workforce needed to transition Australia’s economy to net zero.
  4. It is also investing to support women take up an Australian Apprenticeship in trade occupations that have had historically low female participation, occupations such as plumbing, electrical and carpentry.

I will shortly make some remarks on the last two of these initiatives, notably the New Energy apprenticeships and measures to supports women in traditional trades as they have particular relevance to the work of JSA.

But let me first tell you a bit more about what JSA’s role is all about particularly in supporting apprenticeships and Australia’s skills system more broadly.

The role of JSA in supporting the skills system in general including apprenticeships

The Government has established JSA to provide independent, evidence-based analysis and advice on Australia's skills needs and how to unleash the potential of Australia’s population to meet those needs.

As the Minister noted in his video earlier, the present skills gap in Australia is one of the biggest economic challenges we’ve faced in decades.

JSA’s independent analysis of skills shortages – continuing on from our predecessor, the National Skills Commission –demonstrates this.

The number of occupations assessed as being in shortage for the 2022 Skills Priority List nearly doubled in the past year with 286 occupations assessed as in shortage compared to 153 in 2021.

JSA’s analysis shows this increase has been driven mainly by shortages for professionals like medical practitioners, nurses and teachers.

While this is a concerning new development, it is equally important to recognise that shortages remain most prevalent for Technicians and trades workers.

Indeed, 47 per cent or nearly half of all occupations currently on the Skills Priority List are for Technicians and trades workers and this is particularly the case for occupations requiring an apprenticeship, such as electricians, carpenters, chefs, and motor mechanics.

Persistent shortages in trades are, as all of us here today well know, a longstanding problem and one that’s complex, with multiple, interwoven elements.

Gender diversity

Returning to one of the themes of your conference – diversity in apprenticeships – we at JSA have started looking at how occupational gender segregation is likely compounding skills shortages.

The most persistent of the shortages are in the traditional male-dominated trades.

Government initiatives to promote these trades to women will of course need significant cultural change in workplaces, as well as in the broader community.

But if these initiatives are successful, then as a whole they have great potential to alleviate these chronic, ongoing shortages.

Looking at skill shortages from a gender diversity lens, we found the following:

  • For more than half of occupations in shortage, women make up less than 20% of their total workforce
  • For 14% of occupations in shortage, men make up less than 20% of their total workforce
  • Only 33% of occupations not in national shortage have a gender skew of 80/20 (or more) in their workforce

So, in addition to a combination of enhanced training, and improved wages and working conditions over time to help address current skills shortages, opportunities also exist to expand the potential labour supply for these occupations by increasing workforce diversity.

Basically, fixing some of the entrenched issues that create gender biases in certain occupations has the potential to reduce the likelihood of skills shortages.

So promoting diversity delivers all round dividends. Not only does it reduce gender discrimination — opening up opportunities for people — it also increases potential labour supply, making life easier for business.

Clean energy capacity study

A major element in JSA’s new expanded remit is to undertake a sequence of major new capacity studies, the first of which is of the clean energy sector capacity study.

This will help to guide government’s short-term strategy in investing in things like the New Energy Apprenticeships mentioned earlier.

But it will also guide governments, industry and education and training providers about longer-term skills needs as the economy moves to net zero emissions with the opportunity to see Australia become a renewable energy superpower.

If that happens, it would create major skills needs and labour force demands, that our skills ecosystem would need to be ready for.   

JSA’s clean energy capacity study will be undertaken over the next six months or so and will involve modelling a range of possible future scenarios and examining the implications for the workforce and the skills system.

This will build on work already done in JSA on the implications of decarbonisation for skills needs.

So far, we have identified three main categories of green jobs:

  • Green increased demand’ occupations, which include many conventional jobs like electricians, carpenters and fitters
  • ‘Green enhanced skills’ occupations where the broad purpose of the occupation remains the same but elements of the occupation have changed say with truck drivers who may be increasingly focused on reducing skills consumption
  • ‘Green new and emerging’ occupations that have emerged due to green economy activities and technologies such as recycling workers, sustainability scientists

We are looking forward to building on this work as part of our clean energy capacity study one of JSA’s first major deliverables in this establishment phase of the agency.

Adult foundation skills

Another major study that JSA has been asked to undertake is a major survey of adult foundation skills

A longstanding and important workforce issue that needs to be addressed is that many of our adults have low levels of literacy and/or numeracy. 

According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, conducted by the ABS in 2011-12, approximately 3 million adults in Australia were lacking the fundamental skills required to participate in training and secure work in 2011–12.

This was part of the Program of International Assessment of Adult Competencies or what is otherwise known as PIAAC.

The problem is that these results produced for Australia by the ABS are now more than 10 years old.

If we’re going to address both current and future skills, we need to know whether the very basis of those skills, the core learning to learn skills, have improved or if they have gotten worse. Anecdotally, industry voices are hinting it is the latter.

But we need to find out for sure. That’s why the Government has tasked JSA with providing more up-to-date evidence on the level of foundation skills among Australian adults.

JSA’s study will involve a survey of adults across Australia to assess their current literacy, numeracy, and digital skills. We will also investigate the feasibility of undertaking a similar study with the First Nations’ community.

JSA certainly won’t be doing this work alone. We will be one piece of the puzzle.

The importance of vocational education and training in general

Returning to more general issues about vocational education and training, while apprenticeships are very important, I do want to say something about the importance of the VET system in general.

As noted in a CEDA’s report VET: Securing skills for growth, there is a misconception among the general public that VET is primarily about apprenticeships and traineeships or solely the domain of traditional blue-collar jobs.

But VET of course delivers so many more options with industry-led qualifications spanning foundation skills through to advanced diplomas.

As such, it has an important role in supporting more Australians to access skilled work and contributes to economic prosperity.

In addition to providing the skills needed to get a job, VET helps workers become more productive and take advantage of new opportunities in the economy. It does this in four important ways.

  • First, VET is industry led. Employers and unions shape VET qualifications so they are specifically tailored to meeting the skills needs of their respective industries.
  • Second, VET is flexible. Diverse training options enable VET students to get the skills they need when they need them.
  • Third, VET is competency-based. Students build practical skills through work-oriented learning.
  • Fourth, VET is nationally regulated. VET students get nationally consistent training and assessment.

Reforming the VET system

Given the importance of VET to meeting Australia’s current and future skills needs, it is imperative that steps be taken to strengthen and improve the system so that it is resilient to the inevitable uncertainties that lie ahead.

Again, I know that if the Minister was here today, he would have wanted to talk about ways in which the Government is seeking to do this.

So on his behalf I would like to acknowledge that the Government is working in a range of areas to reform and strengthen the sector and to help make it future proof, including:

  • the roll-out of fee-free TAFE and vocational education places to support priority groups to train in areas of skills demand
  • the establishment of Jobs and Skills Councils, replacing what use to be the industry clusters, to work in partnership with JSA
  • establishing outcomes-focused quality standards that encourage excellence and innovation,
  • transitioning to less-prescriptive VET qualifications to prepare students for a range of occupational outcomes, and
  • proposing a new VET information standard that will provide better evidence to support policy and funding decisions.

Perceptions and status of the VET system

While significant reforms to strengthen the VET sector are underway, we nevertheless continue to face a major challenge that has plagued the sector for way too long – the perceptions and status of VET.

In CEDA’s 2016 report VET: Securing skills growth, which I mentioned earlier, its Senior Economist, Sarah-Jane Derby drew an analogy that I think describes the situation quite well.

Sarah-Jane noted that VET tends be viewed in Australia’s education landscape like a forgotten middle child, squeezed between schools, which tend to get a lot of policy attention – like the youngest child, and universities, which tend to get the prestige and status – like the oldest child.

In the report Sarah went further, boldly calling out what we know all too well and perhaps sometimes don’t want to admit – that the VET sector has a lower status in Australia.

Sadly, that was nearly 7 years ago, over half a decade now. And yet, regrettably, those misperceptions remain all too common.

I am however, one of life’s eternal optimists and I firmly believe we can turn these misperceptions around.

Indeed, it is imperative we do so and in fact the Government is taking some decisive steps in this direction.

As you may be aware, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment Education and Training is currently conducting an inquiry into the perceptions and status of vocational education and training, at the request of Minister O’Connor.

As stated by the Chair of the Committee, the inquiry will examine the choices of Australian students, employers and educators and investigate ways to improve the perceptions of the VET sector and its role in providing opportunities for Australians from all walks of life.

I believe submissions to the inquiry close 1 March. Please do put one forward if you can. It really is too important not to.

Higher education, vocational education and industry

In a recent speech to CEDA, Minister O’Connor stressed the importance of supporting people to do what they are good at and what they enjoy no matter what the pathway – whether it is VET or university.

The Minister added that as a nation, we need both sectors to be strong and that we cannot afford to rely on one or the other.

It probably goes without saying but I could not have agreed with him more on this, as it is a project close to my heart and one I have been deeply involved with for quite some time now.

Indeed, there are issues across the economy requiring a coordinated tertiary response with one key aspect that I’d like to focus on.

One of the most fruitful ways to better coordinate indeed harmonise our tertiary education system is to increase industry engagement in teaching and learning.

This can be done through improved course curricula, more system engagement and expanded opportunities for students to gain work experience and industry relevant skills.

University and industry collaboration is an area where higher education can learn greatly form VET.

As part of a review that I led in 2021 with my colleague Martin Bean on the University-Industry Collaboration in Teaching and Learning Review, we put forward a number of recommendations.

We found that graduates can no longer rely solely on their qualifications to gain employment or succeed in the labour market and that to increase their employability, skills and knowledge they are seeking out extra-curricular activities, work experience and volunteering.

We found evidence showing a clear opportunity to build on the appetite of Australian employers to take on higher apprentices, cadets and interns to establish a national higher education cadetship model.

Accordingly, we recommended the roll-out of a flexible higher education cadetship program combining an employment contract and a learning program including short ‘transition to work’ and ‘career-change’ cadetships (with micro-credentials) and ‘sandwich course’ cadetships (as part of a degree) along with longer multi-year cadetships (with diplomas, associate degrees or degrees).

In recommending the design and delivery of both short- and long-term cadetships we suggested that this may involve collaboration with the VET sector leading to the creation of integrated qualifications that draw on course content from both sectors, enhancing pathways between the two and to further study.

All in all, we reached the conclusions that both higher education and industry have the appetite for increased collaboration. With government support, there are huge opportunities for collaborations that will accelerate Australia’s skills agenda in a post-pandemic world.


In wrapping up, I’d like to thank you for having me here today and I hope I will have the opportunity to engage with you more closely on the future of apprenticeships and how JSA can help inform discussions around policy initiatives in coming months.

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