The ACTU will be relentless in advocating major national investment in vocational training says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

Despite some momentary blips due to global economic conditions the Australian economy has grown strongly overall throughout the 1990s. We are currently experiencing growth levels of 4.1%. Policy makers must acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the ‘skills revolution’ which accompanied the restructuring of the late 80’s and the first half of the 90’s.

Unions acknowledged the need to restructure Australian industry but called for significant attention to training and skills recognition in the process. The ACTU and the unions have been proud to play a central role in supporting VET – made easier by a strong public TAFE system with a professional teaching career service. To some extent this support is merely and extension of the role unions have always accepted in regard to apprenticeships. The strong uptake of traineeships was supported by the ACTU with the championing of Bill Kelty. For the 21st century we know that we have to go beyond entry level training. We will be relentless in advocating major national investment in increasing skills in existing employees along with quality and completion of entry level apprenticeships and traineeships.

The G8 Labour and Employment Ministers got it right earlier this year at their preparatory Conference – Quebec 2002. They recognised that growth and opportunity will require a recognition that jobs lost in economic downturns or continued restructuring will not, in the main, be replaced by the same jobs. The majority of workforce of 2020 already in the labour force and thus the skills and learning needs of current workforce must too be a priority.

VET – the neglected sector

Both the teaching profession and industry representatives can celebrate the successes of the growth in numbers and the increasing profile and popularity of TAFE and the VET sector more generally. With 1.7 million students annually this sector is indeed serving both the economy and the community. However there are some sobering challenges and we must recognise and address them.

1. The reality that despite the growth in the economy the world of work is increasingly insecure:


  • 27% of the workforce is now employed in casual work
  • youth employment is increasingly casual, precarious and transitory
  • women’s jobs make up around two thirds of all full time job losses
  • working Australians over 45, particularly men, are suffering retrenchment and find gaining secure work increasingly difficult
  • indigenous Australians are overwhelmingly the most disadvantaged group in the unemployed sector and
  • growth in underemployment is rapid and alarming.


Consider these realities against the direct issues for the VET sector and there is considerable correlation.

Despite a skills shortage;


  • numbers of apprecticeships and traineeships are up but completion rates are down
  • women are enrolled in almost equal numbers but their employment outcomes remain hugely unequal
  • traineeships vary in quality and industry recognition and are all too often not adequate to meet skills and knowledge required for entry level employment
  • new courses in sectors like IT and green technology are not representative of the standards in innovation we must strive for to make the most of knowledge based opportunities
  • investment in interactivity and software application to drive best practice in pedagogy for online learning is inadequate
  • there is still unfunded demand, and
  • there remain issues of accessibility for rural and disadvantaged groups and communities.


Given these challenges and a lack of attention from is it any wonder that industry and educators are asking what is the Ministerial vision for the VET Sector through MINCO? Where is a concerted view of TAFE futures from the State Labour Ministers? Or even more fundamental, where is the public research that would drive planning for the first decade of the 21st Century?

In short we have TAFE institutions the envy of the world and a strong public foundation that carries 80% of the demands on the VET sector. Yet, despite the vital role in both the economy and the community TAFE is not well understood and is underfunded. And VET, more generally, is for all but those centrally involved. It is a sea of acronyms!

ANTA has provided a sound national focus and a respected coordination framework but despite this VET is the neglected sector and policy makers will continue to render it invisible at serious cost to Australia’s future.

VET – the teaching profession

As a past president of the AEU it worries me that the VET sector has failed to invest in setting professional standards for educators and the subsequent life long learning of staff. TAFE teachers are highly experienced professionals with 30.4% having worked in TAFE for 20 years or more. I would argue that the training base of these professionals has sustained the quality in the sector to the benefit of the institution and the sector more broadly. For those who understand our efforts to establish professional standards, to even get an education ITAB which dealt with standards, the story is one of shortsighted political and bureaucratic protectionism. To have one of Australia’s largest industries and the industry responsible for quality outcomes in the sector pay no attention to a professional standards base has been criminal. I understand there is finally a working party to consider these issues but I plead with State and Federal policy makers to put aside traditional divisions.

Professional training and ongoing professional development of VET educators is a critical priority for industy and government leaders to support. When asked in a recent AEU survey TAFE teachers said they want above all their skills and qualifications recognised and valued by their employers and managers and increased job security. A deskilled, predominantly casual workforce will not maintain the quality of VET the nation requires.

VET – ACTU priorities

For the ACTU the priorities are to:


  • increase the number of training opportunities for new and existing workers to undertake apprenticeships and traineeships
  • improve the quality of the system by ensuring that the AQTF commitments are effectively implemented
  • continue to support the removal of barriers to participation in VET by disadvantaged groups increase
  • the proportion of VET courses in the AQF 3,4 & 5 levels, and
  • achieve a more effective system of RPL for existing employees .


Each of these priorities requires a strategic plan in itself but they accord with taking an aggressive stance to meet the challenges outlined above. Given that Australia invests up to 2% GDP less in education and innovation than the average of OECD nations we can do better. Further, the strategic partnership of the industry partners, employers and unions, in the progress of vocational education and training relevant to Australia’s future should provide us with the strength of advocacy necessary to ensure that the next decade is as successful in growing the VET sector as the last.