Apprentices are now paid more - but will that mean more stick with their trade?
Imagine what would happen if a university program or public course had a one-in-two dropout rate. It wouldn’t be long before it was discontinued. And yet that lack of success is precisely what’s happening with apprenticeships in Australia, with half of apprentices failing to complete their training.
This is a problem because, for starters, it’s costing billions of dollars. The NSW government released figures in 2011 estimating the hit to the economy over the next decade would amount to $3.5 billion – and that’s just in one state.
The high dropout rate is likely to persist because money is possibly not the core issue. The issue could be cultural.
Much of those costs will be shouldered by businesses. The loss of productivity, the shortage of labour, and a failure to get a return on investment inevitably impact the business owner, and this makes many of them reticent to give other apprentices a similar opportunity. Burnt by the experience, they’re reluctant to take another chance.
So why the high dropout rate? One reason is the low wage. This was rectified stunningly last month, with the Fair Work Commission increasing the pay for apprentices by between $70 and $100 a week. (The difference depends on whether or not the apprentice has a year 12 education.)
Unsurprisingly, business groups have been hyperventilating ever since at the significant rise, but if the commission’s decision goes some way in lifting retention rates across the country, surely that’s a good thing for employers and apprentices alike?
The problem, though, is that its effect might be minimal because there’s a stubborn bias in favour of years. This means rewards and progressions are determined by the length of time someone spends in an apprenticeship rather than on an apprentice's ability to do the job. This demoralises those who know they’re talented but are held back by an antiquated system that values time over competence.
A similar trend occurs in the corporate world where job advertisements frequently demand a certain number of years’ experience. This neglects the truth that the duration of someone’s employment has no bearing on their capacity to do the job. An employee with half the experience, in reality, could seriously be twice as good.
The Gillard government cottoned onto this peculiarity last year and subsequently allocated millions of dollars to help employers fast track apprentices who are ready earlier than expected. Hopefully this will continue under the pro-business Abbott government, although a sinister ‘budget emergency’ could complicate things.
In the meantime, the high dropout rate is likely to persist because money is possibly not the core issue. The issue could be cultural.
Gaining a university education has become the choice du jour for many a high school student. Rather than slumming it out in a low-paying trade, increasing numbers of them opt instead for life on a university campus where the promise of a prosperous and fulfilling career is tantalisingly marketed.
A trade, in comparison, just doesn’t match up to the intense focus on getting a degree, billed as essential to competing in a market economy. The prevailing belief is that if you miss out, you’ll be left behind.
As a result, gone are the days when your average apprentice was a year 10 school leaver. Today it’s a different story with one study finding 42 per cent of new apprentices are now older than 25.
Clearly, people embarking on a trade are no longer wet behind the ears. They’re bringing with them qualifications and experience inconceivable in decades past. That’s why the decision to increase their wage last month was justified.
So even though you probably missed it – I certainly did – last Friday was National Tradesman Day. It was a 24-hour period dedicated to forgetting the late arrivals, unreturned phone calls and broken promises that characterise the modern tradie. But perhaps the real thought should really have been with their apprentices.
Have you encountered any apprenticeship challenges? What were they?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis