Subject: (Syrian Humanitarian Crisis; Apprenticeship commencement/completion data)


PATRICIA KARVELAS: The number of Australians starting an apprenticeship or a traineeship has dropped by a staggering 20% over the last year. Apprenticeship and training commencements fell to 190,200 in the 12 months up to March, but there’s also a recalibration going on in the numbers, with resurgence in traditional trades. Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham is my guest; welcome, Minister.    

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Hello Patricia and hello to your listeners.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now before we get in to the trade starter, I just want to get you on the biggest issues that are being discussed in Parliament this week. How many Syrian refugees should we be taking in, in your opinion?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia look, I wouldn’t want to just put a number on it. I think that this is an issue that deserves and warrants proper and serious consideration and that is what the government is giving it. Australia, of course, is a generous country in taking more refugees per capita than any other nation. We have been ahead of many other nations in taking Syrian refugees over the last year and we will be doing more and we should be doing more and that is exactly what Minister Dutton is discussing in Geneva at present, exactly what the cabinet and the National Security Committee are considering as well as, of course, considering the broader issue of how we deal with this problem and how we make substantial contributions to addressing the threat of Daesh, addressing the challenge proposed by the Assad regime; it is a very complicated situation. Australia could take more refugees or could temporarily resettle some people, but that of course won’t deal with the overall problem and with the millions of displaced persons as a result of this conflict. So, I do believe we should do more, I’m confident that we will do more…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: …Should we have a non-discriminatory policy though, because I’ve heard today from many senior people on your side, in the government, talking about prioritising Christian minorities from Syria, but shouldn’t we have a non-discriminatory policy? Even if it means that many Christian Syrians Are brought in to Australia as a result because they are particularly persecuted in Syria, shouldn’t it be a non-discriminatory policy?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, if we are talking about permanent resettlement and therefore talking about the taking and placing and resettling of refugees, then we should be taking the most worthy, the most needy and therefore the most persecuted and that of course is how you should have a look at your refugee policies in terms of resettlement and that is an analysis that then has to be taken on a conflict by situation. It is, of course, quite common in resettling refugees to be considering their religion because they are often persecuted on the basis of religious grounds. So, that is a factor that is weighed up in determining how to fill our refugee intake. The good news is that we are actually able, as a country, to determine how we fill our refugee intake and to take the most persecuted individuals from around the world that we possibly can, whereas before we had control of our borders, before the election of this government, that intake was basically being filled up by those who turned up on our doorstep, rather than those who we could take out of refugee camps and situations elsewhere around the world.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alright, now I just want to take you to this data, a fall of 20% in people starting apprenticeships. You must be alarmed; I mean 20% is quite a significant drop?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I am concerned. There are two real issues that I confront in relation to apprenticeships and traineeships and one is completion data and the other is commencement data and we’ve got a number of measures underway in relation to completions to try and lift that from a historical average of about 50%, but in terms of commencements, which you’ve identified, there has been a dramatic slump in commencements since the middle of 2012 when the previous government removed some incentive arrangements that were in existence and so we saw at that time from the June quarter in 2012 where there were 126,000 commencements to the June quarter in 2013 where that had more than halved to 61,000 commencements and that declined has continued particularly in the non-trade, traineeship type space and that is a concern.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It’s not helped, is it, by the fact that you’ve cut, that the Abbott government has cut $1 billion from apprenticeship programmes?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well that’s just not true and, in fact, the independent National Centre for Vocational Education and Research in releasing this data identifies the June 2012 decision as being the turning point in relation to what is happening. We have significant investment in apprenticeships, we invest around $200 million now in our new Apprenticeship Support Network which is really focussed on how to lift completion rates, we are investing around $400 million in incentive payments to employers for particular categories of individuals and we are investing around $200 million in the new Trade Support Loans programme that this government introduced to try to make it more attractive for young people to take on apprenticeships, particularly in areas of skills shortage where they can get a discounted loan to help them with the cost of living while they’re undertaking their apprenticeship.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The head of the Business Council of Australia, Katherine Livingstone, has said that too many young Australians are entering university and that more should begin in the vocational education system, a real…arguing really for a shift in those numbers. Now historically Australia has, of course, pushed students in to university education, do you think that there should be a policy push to get them back in to the trades, how do you approach that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I am concerned about the nature of career advice that is being offered at schools and perceptions that exist around apprenticeship pathways that do mean that many employers looking for people to be butchers or looking for people to undertake other traditional trades tell me they struggle to get young people to fill those apprenticeship opportunities when what the data tells us is that people who complete a trade based apprenticeship have a 90-95% likelihood of securing a job at the completion of that, so there is great employment outcomes, they are frequently on a starting wage at the end of their apprenticeship higher than what a university graduate gets, so there are better wages and census data tells us that business owners in Australia are more likely to have a vocational qualification than to have a university qualification. So, you’re more likely to end up being an entrepreneur, an innovator, having your own business and contributing to the economy. We do need to sell the message better to parents, to families, to young people, to school teachers that apprenticeships are really good pathways that can set people up for employment opportunities that pay well and that can lead to them being their own bosses and being self-employed and making a great contribution to our economy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister it’s been great speaking with you.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Patricia.