St Patrick’s Technical College Adjournment

I rise to talk about St Patrick’s Technical College near Elizabeth in South Australia. One of the great memories I have of my time in the other place as member for Wakefield was working with the Howard government and local industry in the northern suburbs of South Australia to establish the Australian technical college in Elizabeth. One of the unique features that made this model work and made it effective was the fact that rather than having an educational institution that just turned the handle and pumped out young people—who then went to try and find a job, hoping that their skills might actually suit the needs of an employer—these colleges were run by a board that was chaired by industry and by parents.

The whole curriculum and the whole way the place was run actually suited the employer’s needs, right down to the kind of equipment that was there and the kind of training that was provided. Importantly, when the young people went to actually do placements with an employer, rather than the timing being set by the school, based around their requirements and their thinking as teachers, it was set around industry’s requirements. It was timed to work in with industry so that an employer was able to work a young person into their work routine in a way that suited the business, and the young person got a lot more out of it.

The reason I bring up St Patrick’s is that they have just graduated their 600th apprentice. St Patrick’s is one of the very few technical colleges that survived the purge of 2007. When then Minister Gillard, the Minister for Education, took over, one of the first things she did was to get rid of the technical colleges, because they were seen as very much a product of the conservative government. That was a great shame, because the model worked. The fact that St Patrick’s has survived is due in large part to its principal, Rob Thomas, and to the Catholic education sector. The Catholic education sector had been a partner in the school to start with, with the Commonwealth government. They thought it was such a good model that, when the colleges were going to be scrapped, they decided to take on the college and make it a fully-fledged Catholic school within their system, while continuing the model. It has worked: 600 young people have gained apprenticeships through that college.

I congratulate the college for what they have achieved over that time and the employers who have become involved on the board. Luke Forrest, who was a year 12 metals and engineering student and who was the 600th apprentice, is continuing his part-time, or school based, apprenticeship with them now. In November this year, he will actually become a full-time employee of Stratco in South Australia. I thank those companies who are stepping up to the mark to provide that.

When the technical colleges were scrapped, quite an investment was made in infrastructure. The alternative plan was to have trade training centres at about 2,500 schools around Australia, and some $1.4 billion was spent on infrastructure. Whilst I applaud the fact that there was an attempt to make trade training more available, the key success factor of the technical college system was the fact that it was demand driven. The employers were the ones who drove the syllabus and drove the way it worked, so they brought young people into that relationship. By putting those young people back into a school as part of the broader school system, it went back to the old model of having it driven by educators as opposed to being driven by future employers.

Minister Ley has announced that there is going to be a review of trade training. In South Australia’s case this is really important. While St Patrick’s has survived, across the rest of the state only 0.8 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds are currently enrolled in school based apprenticeships—that is about one in every hundred. This is despite the fact that there is a skills shortage in South Australia, which includes gasfitters, plasterers, plumbers, bricklayers, concreters, electricians and carpenters. A model that worked was discarded and a lot of infrastructure was built. The government is now having a review done. Ms Patricia Scott is conducting a review of trade training and is particularly looking at how industry and employers can be re-engaged. Funnily enough, that was why the technical colleges worked: the people who needed the skills were involved in setting the curriculum, setting how students were trained and determining the equipment used. The review is also examining how industry and employers can be involved in the training delivery to identify the models of best practice, as well as strengthening those links between industry, employers and training organisations.

I am glad to see that from 1 July this year the government is offering loans of up to $20,000 over the life of an apprenticeship. That provides some cash flow for young people who need support with housing or other costs of living to get through their course. Just like a university student can get a loan to pay their fees and can pay that back once they have a sustainable income, the government has extended that to people who are getting a trade, so they can also afford the cost of their education. It is my hope that the outcome of this review will be a situation where—certainly in South Australia—we can learn from St Patrick’s Technical College and the excellent work that Rob Thomas and his team have done and about that interaction with employers. Ultimately, what it will do is provide the environment and the means for young people in Australia to get trade training.

There is one more element I would like to discuss. Over the last 10 to 15 years—this has been market driven, rather than a policy of either side of politics—the market has driven a lot of outsourcing where, if they do not need to do it in-house, some of the trade work has been outsourced to small-to-medium-sized, or even family, businesses. In order to win that work, many of those businesses have to bid pretty lean. They do not have a lot of fat in their organisations anymore to do training, because they have had to bid pretty lean to win the work. The larger organisations, including government organisations, no longer train either. In particular I look at Defence and at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, which used to be one of the principal training organisations in Australia for high-quality technicians and tradesmen, who often went on to have very successful careers in the private sector. I am not saying that we should be going out and distorting the marketplace in terms of how companies work, but I flag the fact that unless companies rethink their process of outsourcing everything and cutting the margins down, we make it difficult to provide the environment for young people to come into a trade.

Where the Defence Force can play a part is the Skilling Australia’s Defence Industry, or SADI, program. It was a good initiative of the Howard government that has been continued by successive governments. However, at the moment it is largely focused at the tertiary level, so we give people a master’s degree in systems integration or that kind of qualification. I think that we should be looking at how we can use the procurement process to say to a large firm that is bidding for work: ‘Show us your training plan. We’ll give you this funding that would normally be delivered through SADI. Show us how you will flow this down to your second- and third-tier suppliers, which will enable them to bid lean to win the work. Show us how you’re going to work with them so they have the resources and ability to take on apprentices and grow that training pool.’ That is not spending extra money, but it is using our procurement process to create an environment where the employer of a small family business that wants to take on an apprentice has the commercial viability to do that.

If we took those kinds of steps we would start rebuilding the base of skills that we need in our country without additional impost on the budget. It would be clever governance of this nation, reshaping an opportunity and an environment that we need if we are going to prosper and if we are going to give the young people in our community hope, a career and a direction for the future.