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Government-funded vocational training numbers in freefall in Canberra

Government-funded vocational training student numbers have taken a nosedive in Canberra in the past five years off the back of falling apprentice numbers and higher university admissions nationwide.

The number of students studying through government-funded vocational education and training programs fell 45 per cent from 2011 to 2015, latest Productivity Commission figures show.

Just 6.1 per cent of ACT residents aged 15 to 64 were engaged in a vocational education training program, lower than any other jurisdiction.

Of those aged 15 to 19 years, 15.1 per cent were engaged in a VET program in the ACT in 2015.

On Wednesday, the government opened over 2900 subsidised places in more than 70 VET courses.

But the Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate half-yearly performance report tabled in the assembly on Tuesday noted the ACT's VET numbers were 22.8 per cent below target. 

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The ACT's biggest provider of vocational education is the Canberra Institute of Technology, which trains 80 per cent of the territory's government-funded VET students every year.

Skills Canberra director David Miller said the drop in numbers in the ACT reflected a nationwide trend.

"Government-funded student numbers have been decreasing since 2012, both nationally and in the ACT," Mr Miller said.

"From 2012 to 2015, student numbers decreased by over 20 per cent nationally.

"A significant contributor to this decline is the widely reported reduction in Australian apprenticeship numbers since 2012, which is likely influenced by a range of factors such as the level of activity in the construction industry and the removal from 1 July 2012 of some of the Australian Government commencement incentive payments."

Industry groups concerned

Industry groups believe the ACT's falling VET completion rates are cause for alarm.

The Productivity Commission found showed the ACT had an estimated qualification completion rate of 39.4 per cent in 2014, the most recent year of data available.

This was slightly higher than the national completion rate of 38 per cent but down 1.8 per cent on the previous year.

"While we might be attracting a number of new apprentices to start apprenticeships, it's the completion rate which is a key indicator," Master Builders ACT deputy executive director Michael Hopkins said.

"The construction industry is experiencing a shortage of apprentices in Canberra and has been for a few years. We're seeing strong demand from host employers wanting to employ apprentices at the moment.

"There's been a large number of major projects announced recently and there's quite a lot of residential activity happening and all of this is only increasing demand for apprentices which industry is struggling to keep up with.

"What we need to see is those completion rates lift across the road so that we're able to deliver more final year apprentices to the market."

National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) chief executive Suresh Manickam said the "upward pressure" on the costs of a job is then passed onto consumers.

"This is an ongoing concern for us because apprenticeships have a very long tail and lead time into the workforces. That means that those skills shortages we're facing are not being addressed in a quick enough fashion so that's a real concern," Mr Manickam said.

University admissions to blame?

David Miller of Skills Canberra said the participation rate for 15-19 year olds in Canberra's VET sector is "typically below the national average due to the very high retention rates in the senior years of schooling in the ACT".

"The ACT has the highest school participation rate in the country, with 71 per cent of 15 to 19-year olds in school in Canberra in 2015, compared to a national average of 57 per cent," Mr Miller said.

Compounding this, Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said a "big expansion" in university enrolments had eroded the candidate pool for apprenticeships.

National Centre for Vocation Education and Research national statistics and analytics manager Mette Creaser agreed people who might have previously gone down the apprenticeship or traineeship route are now taking up positions at universities.

"We have seen university placements open up, so it might just be a shift in what people are getting into," she said.

Mr Hopkins said many industries, including the construction industry, were failing to market themselves as attractive career prospects.

"There is still a bias we see towards school leavers wanting to enter university rather than VET education so we need to promote the benefits of the construction industry more broadly, the fact that young people can earn good wages, have a good work life balance and a rewarding career, and that an apprenticeship VET training pathway is a really good opportunity for people coming out of school if they want to enter the construction industry," he said.

Government-funded VET numbers just part of the picture

However Ms Creaser said the government-funded VET numbers don't show the whole picture.

"Those numbers don't provide a picture for all the training that's being delivered in the ACT so it's a little bit difficult to say whether there are any potential gaps in service delivery," Ms Creaser said.

NCVER's Total VET Activity report showed total VET delivery in Australia increased by about 15 per cent from 2014 to 2015, around 11 per cent in the ACT.

Mr Hopkins said the Master Builders ACT had increased its intake of new apprentices by 32 per cent and had more than 200 enrolled in its group training program.

Mr Manickam said NECA was concerned about the low number of providers in the ACT market.

"We have been calling on the ACT government for some time to actively open up the market place and get other providers, such as ourselves in so that we can actually assist in trying to boost apprentice numbers," Mr Manickam said.