The Guardian 16 March, 2005

Government has no solution
for jobless youth

The Howard Government is taking away the futures of young Australians. John Howard points to the likes of cheap labour outfits such as McDonald's and KFC as the solution to youth joblessness. His government's "new apprenticeships" and "traineeships" and its mooted Training Colleges are driven by the demands of employers for cheap training schemes, not all-round development of skills that will equip youth for proper jobs with real wages.

There is such a shortage of skilled labour in Australia that the government has announced it intends to start importing it. A report released last week by the federal Department of Education, Science and Training says that between years 2000 and 2003 the number of workers starting a trade apprenticeship declined by 2300.

The biggest drop in the traditional trades was in the building industry. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) says that half of all new building trades apprentices drop out within six months. Why? "They just can't live on the wage", says CFMEU Construction Division Secretary John Sutton.

He said that as long as youth can get a better wage in a fast food outlet than as an apprentice the problem will continue. Building trade apprentices get little more than $200 per week in the first year. Mr Sutton also rejected Howard's call for students to leave school at the end of year 10 and get a trade, noting that year 12 graduates have a number of advantages, including being more confident after having completed high school.

At the same time the Government is killing off the TAFE system. More than one in ten Australians aged over 15 enrol to study in vocational education and training each year, including more than 1.3 million in the public TAFE systems.

TAFE is a means for young people to further their education. It also provides second chances for many who, for various reasons, could not complete their secondary education. It provides an opportunity for them to be educated and trained so they can have a chance at a better future.

Since 1996 state and federal governments have been cutting funds to TAFE, taking away access for many thousands through increased costs to students and a reduction in the number of places available.

  • Last year more than 50,000 people missed out on a TAFE place

  • Fees have been introduced

  • Higher level courses which cost more to fund are being cut back

  • Traineeships are being hit

  • Bigger class sizes, the reduction of the number of courses, cuts to student services and the amalgamation of colleges and the closure of others are ongoing

  • More teachers are being employed on a casual basis, which affects both students and teachers.

    Shortfall in training

    And it is also because of government cut backs that there is now a chronic shortage in the traditional trades, including electrical, metal and plumbing as well as building. Since it was first elected in 1996, the Howard government has constantly attacked the apprenticeship system and, as a result, has created the worst shortage of skilled workers in Australia's history.

    Instead of funding and supporting training for real apprenticeships, the government has created a mish-mash of a training system.

    It calls this system "new apprenticeships" but it is actually a mix of traditional apprenticeships and traineeships.

    In the same way it is privatising everything else, so the Howard Government has basically privatised the skills training of young people, bringing in private training providers that are paid by the government according to the number of people being trained.

    This has resulted in a number of backward steps in opportunities for young workers:

  • It re-directed funding into areas that could produce a quick result (meaning less training) such as traineeships in hospitality (restaurants, coffee shops etc) and retail;

  • Traditional apprenticeships desperately needed in industry, such as metal, electrical and carpentry, have been starved of funding in areas such as TAFE;

  • And TAFE itself cops a double whammy. Already suffering cutbacks at state and federal levels, it is also losing the money that was meant for it which has been instead siphoned off to the private, for-profit training outfits.

    The shortage of skilled trades-people has been made worse by the government's privatisation program. It has sold off publicly-owned services and businesses which have been a big source of apprenticeships.

    And as the skills base is eroded the downward spiral increases so that, in time, the skills necessary to produce and maintain industries and produce jobs are lost.

    Supporting the apprenticeship system is the best way to produce well trained and fully skilled trades-people, combining on-the-job and off-the-the-job training.

    As part of this process TAFE needs to be a properly funded as a non-commercial education provider. TAFE can provide better training in all areas of work than any private, profit-chasing operator.

    The Howard Government's agenda for all workers was made clear in a speech last month by Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews when he announced that ideas of "fairness" in workplaces were "misconceived" and that "... an emphasis on fairness only leads to regulatory excess and inefficiency".

    Detailing the Government's long-term agenda in workplace relations, Andrews gave support to business plans to:

  • Undertake a hostile take-over of all state industrial relations systems that currently cover about half the Australian workforce;

  • Eliminate basic award protections, including long service leave, jury service leave, notice of termination, and superannuation provisions;

  • Scrap unfair dismissal laws;

  • Abolish the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in setting minimum wages and conditions and settling industrial disputes.

    The Howard government has made it impossible for most young school leavers to have access to a university education with the imposition of massive fees. Increasing numbers of young people trying to make a go of it are living on the edge of poverty.

    Here is the example of one student who is studying at Ultimo TAFE in Sydney: "I'm getting about $215 a fortnight. I used to earn $450 a week and I've gone down to $100. Twenty-five percent of my Youth Allowance goes on my rent. I'm living on Nutella sandwiches and cordial."

    Of course, there is one industry where employment opportunities are opening up the killing industry. Last week the National Servicemen's Association of Australia called on the Government to "bite the bullet" and bring back conscription. Don't think the Government wasn't listening.

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