The great apprenticeship shake-up
For school-leavers around the country who don’t wish to pursue a university career, being an electrician is a very promising career. It just turns out that nobody remembered to tell the students that.
Listen to any FM radio station on your way to work and you will notice a recurring theme. Ad after ad spruiks courses in massage therapy, audio engineering, aged care and the like; it seems like every second person is becoming a personal trainer or barista nowadays.
This should be a wake-up call for the electrical industry. We need to get to grips with the fact that there are far more vocational options than ever for today’s youth. And not only are vocational options increasing, other service industries are investing in proactively marketing themselves to young people.
So for the electrical industry to grow its apprentice base, it has to embrace the challenges of dynamically promoting itself to the best young people with the practical and intellectual capabilities needed to thrive. This will ensure a high industry standard is maintained and the ever-increasing demand for sparkies can be met.
The demand for sparkies is increasing due to economic growth and senior workers retiring at an ever increasing rate. National data suggests the number of sparkies coming through the ranks appears to be either stagnant or decreasing.
This is despite the great selling points that are bandied about for an electrical career. It generally pays well; there is an abundance of work in most areas; job security; and, transferable skills. Even more attractive is the possibility for a sparky to be their own boss before the age of 25.
We decided to do a small survey to get a feel of where the electrical industry sits as an option for students who are about to make some serious decisions about their future.
We surveyed 22 year 10 students from Mazenod College, a Catholic boy’s school of 1,500 students based in Melbourne’s south east. It was the nearest college to our office, in a mortgage belt area of Melbourne. And while this ‘one class’ survey doesn’t pretend to be a fully representative sample, it did highlight some fundamental shortcomings of the industry.
Although these students had been through a comprehensive and compulsory Year 8 class of wood/metal work and other hand skill introductions, not a single student surveyed was aware of the career pathways an electrical apprenticeship can lead to.
Yes, most electrical RTOs, GTOs and TAFEs can get applicants but the question that needs to be asked is this: ‘Is the industry attracting and selecting from the best available pool of talent?’
Many schools, parents and students tend to see university acceptance as their metric for success and going into a trade career can be seen as a failure to reach that (parental) goal. At Mazenod College over 80% of surveyed students aimed to go to university. Only two students planned to do a TAFE course.
While it may be harder to get into university, trade qualifications lead to careers that often merit better outcomes in earning potential, employment rates and ultimately career satisfaction. The electrical sector is a prime example of a tertiary career that has higher earning potential and employment rates than many university course-based careers.
With diminishing numbers of overseas students, less recognised universities are dropping their entrance levels to achieve budgeted student numbers – thus pushing even more kids into unproductive outcomes and away from the trades.
Our student survey suggests today’s youth has a narrow-minded view of the electrical industry. Drawing associations of grubby clothes, old utes, pulling wires in roofs and always going on ‘smoke-o’ is not exactly a winning formula.
Changing the perception of the industry may seem like a herculean task but the industry can take inspiration from companies that have managed to successfully shift public perception of their ‘brand’. It’s not impossible to do.
Remember when Old Spice was known, unofficially, as domain of granddads, never to be considered by the younger generation? A marketing campaign featuring a former NFL player popularised the product among young people and sent the company’s bottom line soaring. Brands are not necessarily the same as an industry, but getting the image and marketing right is a great start.
The electrical industry could likewise re-image and market itself, to enhance its attraction as a career option.
While the electrical industry should be working on increasing interest among young people, work can also be done to help students with the attributes, skills and interest in the field, to find their way to doing an apprenticeship and not be steered off course by external pressures along the way.
WHAT THE INDUSTRY CAN DO
We spoke to Mazenod College careers coordinator Vivian Seremetis and VCAL coordinator Matt Johnson to find out what the electrical industry can do to better engage the students at Mazenod.
They made two critical suggestions on ways the industry can help to inform school students about the industry.
- The industry needs to provide information resources to schools, students and parents.
It is hard for career guidance councillors to know the ins and outs of every possible career choice out there. To help careers teachers, the electrical industry needs to create resources for councillors to provide to students and parents.
“The meat industry for example has a really good website about careers in meat and the benefits of being in the industry. It shows the meat industry is not just about being a butcher and there are many different roles available in the meat industry,” Vivian says.
“It would be great for the electrical industry to provide councillors with printed materials we can hand out, videos we can show and websites we can give links to, all providing information on the many benefits of working in the electrical industry and the career paths electrical can lead to.”
- The industry needs an apprenticeship officer to assist students who want to do work experience in the electrical industry, directing them to electrical companies that are happy to take on work experience students.
“We’ve been struggling for many years to get students placed in electrical businesses,” Matt says.
“We had a student who really wanted to be a sparky, he was very proactive and wrote to many electrical companies but he just couldn’t get a spot. He got frustrated trying tirelessly to get his foot in the door but couldn’t.
“I had another boy who wanted to be a bricklayer. I went to the association of bricklayers and asked if they had a list of brickies who are taking on students. Their response was: ‘No we don’t’.
“I would have thought that would be the first thing they had.
“We need a better way of matching students who want work experience with workplaces willing to give students that opportunity.”
Ideally a nationwide system should be put in place to help match school students and electrical workplaces.
It would be mutually beneficial for schools and the electrical industry to form a networking partnership facilitating better communication so students have good access to all the information and opportunities available.
In July 2016, the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) commenced a project that would trial new methods of delivering electrical apprenticeships, among other things, across the country.
Known as the NECA Electrical Innovative Delivery and Pathways Project, or the Alternative Pathways Project (APP) for short, this pilot program aims to test and open up alternative training approaches on a broader scale providing greater skills development, choice and industry acceptance.
“The APP is a by-product of the Federal Government’s Mentor Advisory Program (MAPS),” NECA chief executive Suresh Manickam says.
“MAPS was essentially designed to prove one thing: if you boost the number of mentors, or target them more effectively, you get a better outcome and better completion rate.
“Of course, this has long been seen as common sense, but now there is science behind it.”
Suresh explains that while the MAPS program was an interesting exercise, NECA wanted to take things further.
“We wanted to truly understand what employers want to get out of employing apprentices, what apprentices want as well as RTOs and GTOs. Instead of looking at one plane, we wanted to look at multiple planes.
“This led to the creation of a report that generated 40-odd different suggestions surrounding apprenticeships.
“We took this to parliament and explained to everybody who would listen that we had an opportunity to refine the apprenticeship program. The government agreed and allowed us to refine four distinct areas within the larger apprenticeship.
“This is where the APP comes in.”
The APP will operate across Australia for a two-year period and will be delivered by public and private sector training partners across the electrical contracting sector. It will explore opportunities to encourage broader skills development approaches for entry level and qualified tradespeople to enter the sector. The pilot will also examine the challenges and regulatory burdens to increased industry participation and training practice development.
Within the four core activities there are a prescribed number of programs that will be developed and trialled to address a number of critical issues needing attention in skills development and training approaches in the highly regulated electrical and communication industry. Each initiative will be developed in consultation with partner providers, i.e. NECA, relevant departments, and employers.
“The first area we are looking into is ‘pre-vocational’. We are looking at numeracy and literacy standards as well as our learning management system (LMS) and how to make that better,” Suresh says.
“The second area is emerging technologies that are entering our market. Arguably there are more emerging technologies in our market than any other, particularly around renewables and energy efficiency. So is education keeping up with these technological advances?
“The next question is how do we attract more people to our trade? In particular, our current attraction rate for female and mature aged apprentices is very low. As is our participation rate in rural and regional areas.
“There are different reasons for each of these groups. For rural and regional areas there’s the tyranny of distance issue as well as funding and scheduling. For mature aged apprentices, there’s an ongoing issue of wage rates – mature aged apprentices offer better productivity than their younger counterparts but they cost more.
“If you want to look at addressing the skills shortage, you have to look at broadening your participation rate.
“The fourth area we’re looking at is what we’re doing as far as workplace support is concerned and the effectiveness of current measures.”
This is a very significant undertaking on the part of NECA, but changing attitudes towards the electrical industry as far as potential apprentices are concerned can’t be left to one organisation.
Together, we can ensure the best people are entering the workforce… and staying there.