New apprentice numbers have collapsed in recent years, prompting calls for governments to make a fresh commitment to vocational education and training.
While politicians, unions and industry groups blame each other, one Canberra employer believes the problem is how society exaggerates the value of universities.
Emilio Cataldo operates Cataldo's Salon at Civic and Woden, and has seen apprentice numbers halve in the past two years.
"It's a trend that's been occurring for some time," Mr Cataldo said.
"It's due to the strong push for Australia to be a clever country. What that implies is that unless you have a degree you're not contributing to Australia as a clever country.
"It's a slogan that's snowballed and society now believes it is a truth."
Mr Cataldo said parents, teachers and others were pressuring young people to study a degree instead of entering a trade.
"It's so sad because we [hairdressers] are inextricably linked to the fashion industry," he said.
"I've seen so many young people do a fashion degree and very few of them end up working on their own label or in a fashion house.
"They usually end up in a fashion store as a shop assistant."
With the current national partnership agreement for VET about to expire, industry groups this week called on governments to seal a deal.
They said in four years to June 2016 there was a 42.8 per cent drop in new apprentices in the ACT.
"I've seen so many young people do a fashion degree and very few of them end up working on their own label or in a fashion house.:Canberra hairdresser Emilio Cataldo
Apprentices and trainees now represent just 2.7 per cent of the Australian workforce, the lowest in a decade.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said a partnership agreement was the best way to get governments working together on a common agenda for apprenticeships.
"The federal government should maintain the funding in the current partnership agreement – $1.75 billion over five years – and create a genuine national system for apprenticeships," he said.
A 2015 review reported "strong evidence" the quality of VET had declined, according to surveys and feedback. The review also showed the ACT exceeded its targets.
It recommended a greater focus on the skill needs of priority industries and increased choice of training options.
ACT training minister Meegan Fitzharris backed the call for a new funding agreement.
"It's unacceptable that states and territories are still waiting for any indication from the Commonwealth about what they plan to do to continue supporting the VET sector in Australia," she said.
"We have been asking the Commonwealth for months and with the federal budget less than two months away, and no skills ministers meeting scheduled, we are deeply concerned about what plans the Commonwealth has for this vital sector."
Federal assistant minister Karen Andrews said a proposal was currently "undergoing standard cabinet processes".
She hit back at critics, saying in Labor's last full year in office the number of apprentices and trainees fell 22 per cent.
"The Coalition is working to reverse the decline that started under Labor," she said.
"Through our industry reference committees we are putting industry at the centre of training reforms to ensure trainees are learning the skills employers are looking for to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow."
Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the system was on the tipping point of crisis.
"The stark numbers of apprentices falling away from the system make it clear that we need to improve its performance," she said.
"To achieve this, governments should use the national partnership funding to reinvigorate and modernise the system."
UnionsACT secretary Alex White agreed more apprentices were needed, but accused industry chiefs of hypocrisy.
"Sadly the same employer groups now sticking their hand out for funding have actively opposed unions' efforts to have mandated apprenticeship ratios," Mr White said.
"The newly passed ABCC laws now prohibit apprentice ratios being included in collective agreements in a vast range of industries beyond the construction sector."