Here's why TAFE is losing out to universities in the education race

Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australia has a confusing youth unemployment problem.

Despite the figure sitting at a worrying 12.6 per cent, multiple industries are crying out for people with the right skills.

In fact, the Apprentice Employment Network NSW and ACT reported that 1,500 apprenticeships were left unfilled last year.

This has led some to blame the younger generation for being lazy, but this is far from the case.

The problem is an education and training structure that equips young people with skills that are misaligned to the job market, resulting in poor advice and guidance.

In countries such as Germany and Switzerland – where youth unemployment is low, around two thirds of young people take up vocational training.

In Australia, students are told that university should be the primary goal, while apprenticeships and vocational routes get less emphasis. It is positive that a much higher percentage of people now attend university, but vocational routes have taken a hit.

To replicate the success of Switzerland and Germany, Australia must make apprenticeships and vocational training routes more appealing to young people.

University marketing campaigns have presented degrees as the unrivaled option when it comes to expanding horizons, but this does not always hold up to the facts.

The vocational image problem

Financially speaking, vocational routes to work are often the best option. New vocational education and training (VET) graduates earn an average salary of $56,000 while university students earn $54,000.

Despite this, a recent study by TAFE shows Australians believe over two-thirds of VET graduates earn $10,000 less than those straight out of university.

Emphasising the financial realities of these courses and comparing them to university degrees would be effective in altering opinions.

That said, finance alone is not the only factor needed to make vocational routes attractive. Apprenticeships are commonly believed to solely cover trades such as plumbing, electrical work and construction.

These can lead to successful careers, but more young people would be enticed if a larger variety of opportunities were front and centre. Vocational routes are available in fields ranging from finance, aviation, engineering, healthcare and technology to name a few, offering a wealth of choices.

Embarking on a specific career through an apprenticeship can be a daunting prospect for school leavers that want to keep options open.

In Switzerland, apprenticeships have built in flexibility, making it very common for people to change route, or even embark on study after learning their craft.

Australian businesses would see better uptake on training if they expressed how apprenticeships can lead to alternative roles in a similar field.

Diversity must also be addressed. Women currently make up 14.7 per cent of trade workers and technicians in Australia, making these routes potentially daunting for some.

Marketing and recruitment campaigns that emphasise successful women in these professions could help to improve this picture.

Stronger partnership between employers and educators

To drive vocational pathways, governments, businesses and education providers need to foster closer relationships. If new technology or market demands cause changes to the job market, collaboration is needed to create training that works.

This can be achieved by expanding apprenticeships to include a mix of theoretical and practical work, involving employers years before students are due to leave school and placing more investment in the creation of traineeships.

In Switzerland, even professional organisations such as banks frequently employ those fresh from school.

The VET sector is also hindered by a financing problem. Whereas university courses have a universal loan system ran by the federal government, TAFE loans are only available for certain courses.

Some VET courses even have an additional twenty per cent loading fee, creating an imbalance between universities and VET programs.

There have already been some positive moves in balancing the financial divide, with the Victorian government set to scrap fees in 30 key areas by 2019, but there is more to be done.

A loan scheme like that available for degrees could encourage more students to enroll on VET.

Balancing theory and practical skills

More education is better than no education, and universities are undoubtedly the best option for some of Australia’s young people.

But treating this as a one size fits all policy is not the most effective way to approach the youth unemployment issue.

An effective workforce needs to form a balance between strong theoretical and practical skills to get the best outcome.

While Australia is doing the theoretical side well, it could do better by giving young people the hands-on experience they need.

Rafael Moyano is the CEO of Adecco Australia.

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