Opinion: Old system, new skills

Opinion: Old system, new skills

by Andrew Herrmann

Builder. Chef. Mechanic. Say the word ‘apprenticeship’ and these are likely some of the fields that first spring to mind.

With about half of all apprentices training in automotive, electrical or construction in 2018, apprenticeship in Australia remains largely a pathway for traditional tradespeople. This concentration isn’t problematic in itself.

But a key challenge for Australia’s apprenticeship system is who it doesn’t train.

Apprenticeships for Australia’s future
Australia’s apprenticeship system is not devoid of occupational diversity. Last year, around 35 per cent of apprentices were in non-trades. However, the system caters poorly to the fields of the future.

As artificial intelligence technologies improve, research suggests that repetitive tasks will increasingly be automated. Consequently, technology will become even more pervasive in the workplace, requiring workers with technology-relevant skills.

In 2017, Australia had 663,100 ICT workers. By 2023, it is expected to need around 100,000 more. Given that Australian universities produce only around 5,500 ICT graduates per year, apprenticeship could help bridge this technological skills gap.

Yet last year just 2,880 apprentices – one per cent of the national total – were employed as ‘Engineering, ICT and Science Technicians’. This constitutes a 54 per cent decline since 2014.

A similar trend applies to areas like community and aged care. Such fields are difficult to automate given their unpredictability and social aspects. Yet whilst Australia’s aging population is driving increasing demand for these workers, the number of apprentices in this field has decreased by 25 per cent since 2014.

As the future of work rapidly arrives – with its emphasis on technological fluency, and interpersonal skills – our apprenticeship system isn’t adapting. This system must do more to train workers for high-tech, high growth fields.

In this regard, US experiences of non-traditional apprenticeship illuminate a path forward.

Unlikely Lessons from the US
At first glance, turning to the US for apprenticeship guidance seems counterintuitive. Where Australia’s apprenticeship system is well-coordinated between federal and state governments, US apprenticeship is highly decentralised. Program quality, regulation and incentives vary drastically between states, and participation is low. Whereas apprentices make up around two per cent of Australia’s workforce, in the US they constitute just 0.3 per cent.

But the fragmented nature of the US apprenticeship system allows for greater innovation – and certain states are repurposing apprenticeship for the future of work.

In the states of Colorado and Washington, the governors took the basic recipe of apprenticeship—classroom instruction and on-the-job training—and transplanted it to various non-traditional industries. These include IT, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, financial services and renewable energy technology.

As one major Australian government report recognised, these same high-tech industries are growing in Australia, and the vocational education and training (VET) system can help meet demand for qualified workers.

The Essential Ingredients of New-Age Apprenticeship
These two US state programs required significant financial investment: the state of Washington partly relied on federal government grants, whilst private sector contributions help fund Colorado’s initiative.

Yet equally as important is the continuing investment of political capital: both states’ Governors actively promote their respective initiatives to students, parents and local employers. This is essential to overcome the entrenched stigma toward VET in the US.

Although any such stigma is less pronounced in Australia, committed political energy can similarly help convince employers and would-be participants that apprenticeship can work in fields like IT, in which university qualifications are often a more common entry pathway.

Finally, the defining aspect of programs in both Washington and Colorado is industry partnership. This occurs in strategy and governance. In Washington state, industry leaders occupy positions on the Governor’s Task Force overseeing apprenticeship, which is in fact co-chaired by the President of Microsoft – a major, high-tech employer based in the state.

Such partnership also occurs in program design and implementation. In Colorado, industry is actively engaged to ensure that the competencies apprentices develop are tailored to in-demand skills. Support is then available for employers in mentoring apprentices – crucial, given the unfamiliarity of apprenticeship in most non-traditional industries.

In Australia, the Morrison government recently pledged to partner with industry in developing new VET qualifications in emerging fields. For now though, high-tech, industry-targeted apprenticeship programs like those of Washington and Colorado have not gained traction in Australia.

Australian leaders have outlined grand economic ambitions for the technological future. NSW, for instance, plans to lead in defence and aerospace production and to cultivate non-traditional growth drivers like digital innovation, financial and professional services, environmental technologies and advanced manufacturing.

Australia’s apprenticeship system has successfully skilled generations of Australian workers. It would be wise to adapt this valuable resource to help fulfil such ambitions and train the generations of tomorrow.

Andrew Herrmann is a Research Assistant in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. This is based upon his co-authored report ‘Future workers: Computer science, apprenticeships and soft skills’.