Australia's education system is failing both business and students

Every family needs a tradie or two. Picture: Getty Images

I was at a dinner recently with some fairly senior businesspeople in Newcastle.

It was a round table function where everyone gave their view of the economy and how it is impacting them. It was my job to sum everything up and tie the overall global macro economic and markets outlook back to some form of relevance to the audience.

We talked a lot about the region and the world and it was my job to answer a few questions.

But there was one question I couldn’t answer and it’s a question I have been trying to figure out for a couple of years now. It’s a simple question really, one that when I was a kid was easily answered but one which in the post-Dawkins higher education era where everyone is supposed to finish year 12 and the school certificate (as it was called when I was in year 10) doesn’t exist anymore, isn’t quite as simple.

The question, asked by one of the more senior members at dinner, was what advice should this fellow give his grandkids who really weren’t academic and couldn’t see the point of year 12. They wanted to do an apprenticeship but apprenticeships are hard to find.

It got me thinking, again, about how the education system is set up to funnel kids into university, but uni and a HECS debt is not, and should not be, for everyone.

It was with this mindset that nationally we are failing an important slice of kids coming through the system that I read a piece of research from the Australian Industry Group (AiGroup) which had coincidentally floated through my inbox.

The AiGroup has recently conducted one its regular surveys of employers to ask them about their workplace development and skills needs. It found “significant skills shortages, especially for technicians and trade workers”.

So I was wondering why the heck it seems so hard to get an apprenticeship.

Yet AiGroup CEO Innes Willox said “apprenticeships and traineeships are in decline and over half of our surveyed employers do not engage in this training option. School-based apprenticeships remain under-utilised and school leavers are not attracted to apprenticeships.”

So are apprenticeships falling because of lack of supply or lack of demand? Surely it couldn’t be demand because the survey showed that “skills shortages remain a persistent problem for industry with about half of surveyed employers experiencing and expecting skills shortages”.

That’s especially with regard to “technicians and trade workers”, with half of the employers AiGroup spoke to identifying this as the group with the highest level of skills shortage.

The research showed there is some reticence on employers’ behalf to take on apprentices because of the “current economic climate”. But the survey also said “employers are concerned about the suitability of applicants, the availability of relevant training, and literacy and numeracy issues”.

Now we are getting to the nub of it.

Australian businesses appear to think that the educational system is letting them down by delivering sub-standard applicants. I wondered if this was a cop out and business just wanted someone else to train their staff for them.

But Megan Lilly, the AiGroup’s head of workforce development, told me that was not the case.

While business in various degrees was dissatisfied with the skills of university, VET, and high school graduates, Lilly said business was increasingly trying to fill those gaps outside the formal education sector.

She highlighted that increasingly, Australian business is taking on the task of upskilling workers themselves with the survey showing 47.5% of respondents looking to “in-house accreditation and non-accreditated training as the most favoured response” to the skills shortage.

And she said that this was against a background of fairly static expenditure on training by employers who weren’t impacted by weakness in the economy.

That has to be seen as an indictment on Australia’s formal education system. When 87% of employers report their business is “affected by low levels of literacy/numeracy”, then something has, or is, going horribly wrong.

Which brought me all the way back to that conversation in Newcastle a few weeks back. What advice should the granddad give his grandsons who don’t want to go to uni, don’t want to finish year 12 and want to do an apprenticeship?

Lilly said there are ways to ease the transition out of high school and away from uni. Pre-apprenticeship courses are an important step so that the kids can get a taste for the trade they are interested in before making the full commitment. Also, group training companies put a framework around the youngsters and are another way businesses manage their apprentices.

The alternative is of course that Australia’s educational system could work with business, think about what the future economy needs and train our youngsters accordingly.

There is lots of talk about a focus in education on STEM – or STEAM – but business reports it still has difficulty finding applicants with the requisite skills.

Maybe we could start there.

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