Election 2010: A struggle for power
The electrotechnology industries have for a long time had a love/hate relationship with the Federal Government. Over the past three years, it has been somewhat of a political hotbed – the home insulation debacle, the National Broadband Network (NBN) debate and the perennial hanger-oner, the Daryl Somers of the electrical industry, the skills shortage.
Now, with the 2010 Federal Election just months away, all signs are pointing to these electro-centric issues taking centre stage as the nation decides who will govern us in 2011 and beyond.
So what does this mean to you, the contractor? To get the best picture of the road ahead, we must first look back.
The global financial crisis (GFC) affected us all. The period between 2008 and 2010 saw the most challenging global economic environment since the Great Depression.
And while Australia did not officially enter into a recession, we were not immune to the effects of a collapsing economy.
For the most part, people recognise the then-Rudd Government’s economic stimulus plan as an important part of cushioning Australians from the worst impacts of the global recession. This early and decisive action is one of the reasons we experienced a much milder contraction than other advanced economies.
However, the GFC also led to what helped to spell the demise of the Rudd Government – the home insulation fiasco. The mismanagement of this program, which has resulted in four deaths, 93 house fires, put tens of thousands of homes at risk, left taxpayers millions out of pocket and left the electrical and insulation industries in chaos.
“When the government ceiling insulation initiative was announced, the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) immediately recognised the potential dangers for householders that could arise with unqualified insulation installers not recognising the fire and electrocution risks,” says NECA National chief executive James Tinslay. “We advised Minister Garrett of our concerns and recommended appropriate training be mandated for insulation installers and that the public be made aware of the danger and the need for using accredited installers.”
Since the subsequent repositioning (read: “demotion”) of the Minister directly involved in the scheme, Peter Garrett, the Government has moved to address other issues, many of which directly affect the future of the electrical industries.
In the 2010 Federal Budget, the Government announced a $300 million Skills for Recovery program, which included the allocation of $20 million to projects that will increase pre-apprenticeship training over the next 18 months under the Apprentice Kickstart program, $10.3 million for mentoring services to help apprentices through to the end of their training and into secure jobs, and an increase to the apprenticeship commencement bonus.
“During the GFC we used some of the stimulus to triple the commencement bonus for employers to take on a first year, teenage apprentice from $1,500 to $4,850. This was done to support small business and to encourage them to help young people and also meet the future skill needs of the country,” says Minister for Employment Participation Mark Arbib.
“During the GFC, the Federal Government did what it had to do. It acted to protect working Australians, it stimulated the economy, and it did that to keep tradespeople like electricians in work. Across the country, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, boiler makers and welders have kept their jobs and kept food on their tables thanks to the Government’s stimulus package.
“Now, as the economy recovers, we want to ensure that we prepare our country for the future, keep our economy strong, but also drive down the cost of living.”
This will be difficult, he says, as one of the worst outcomes of the GFC was a significant drop in apprenticeship commencements.
“Apprentice commencement numbers dropped over a 12 month period by 25%, and it can take quite a long time to come back from that.
“In the 1990s a very similar thing happened. The recession in 1992 saw a 20% drop in apprenticeship commencements and it took 13 years to get them back to the 1990s level. What we’ve been able to do through the Apprentice Kickstart program is make up the 25% drop in just 12 months.
“We’ve now extended that program out to November and we are anticipating the program to support a further 22,500 apprentices in the traditional trades where we have identified skills shortages.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in her capacity as the Minister for Education, has claimed that the Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott plans to gut spending on education and training. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey announced plans to cut programs that teach trades to younger Australians; the Coalition would cancel the Trades Training Centres program, which aims to deliver a new trades training centre to every secondary school that wants one and allows schools to combine their resources to provide trades super-centres.
Ms Gillard says the resultant cut of 396,000 training places would see the industry return to the Howard-era skills shortage.
But, according to Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Senator Mathias Cormann, the cancellation of the Trades Training Centres program may not result is as big a loss as estimated by Ms Gillard.
The PM, he says, has failed to deliver on technical training and education during her nearly-three years as the “part-time” Minister for Training.
“After promising 2,650 trades training centres in schools at the last election in 2007, only one of them was up and running in time for the 2010 school year. None of her rhetoric can hide the fact that she has wasted the last three years failing to get a bad policy on trades training centres to work.
“The lonely Trades Training Centre up and running at the beginning of this school year was Aviation High in Brisbane – hardly a school where they’re training carpenters and electricians.
“We’re now told by the Government that instead of delivering 2,650 trades training centres, funds will have to be pooled and the number of trades training centres will be dramatically reduced.
“Across many schools Julia Gillard has spent more on school halls than she is proposing to spend on Trades Training Centres under the ill thought-out policy Labor took to the last election.
“Labor’s Trades Training Centre in schools model was never a serious commitment to high quality technical training and education. It was nothing more and nothing less than a rushed pre-election political fix to justify the scrapping of the Howard government’s highly successful Australian Technical Colleges.
“Those stand alone centres were providing high quality training to thousands of future carpenters, electricians and other apprentices when Labor closed them down.
“The Trades Training Centres in schools model, in attaching a relatively small technical section at the back of a secondary school, is not the right way to deliver high quality technical education.”
Despite this, Mr Arbib says the ALP’s priority is to ensure Australian job seekers get a fair go in training and employment.
“This is the most important part of everything – it’s the reason why we have the Skills for Recovery package, the reason why we have Apprentice Kickstart, and the reason why the PM has put 700,000 training places on the table.
“Our policies are about ensuring Australians are being trained for the jobs of the future and ensuring that young Australians in particular are getting access to apprenticeships because it’s not just a job but a career for life.”
To support this ‘Australians first’ policy, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Senator Chris Evans recently announced a new Skilled Occupation List (SOL) designed to deliver highly skilled migrants and crackdown on people seeking permanent residency through low-value education courses.
“We intend to fundamentally change the way we target skilled migrants to restore integrity to the skilled migration program,” he says. “Through a targeted migration program, the Federal Government will attract skilled migrants of the highest calibre and deliver people with real skills to meet real need in our economy.”
In 2007-08, of the 41,000 general skilled visas granted, more than 5,000 went to cooks and hairdressers. These two occupations have been removed from the new SOL.
The electrical and telecommunications industries will still have access to skilled migrant labour.
The new SOL is a critical reform in the Government’s overhaul of the skilled migration program and closes the door on those seeking to manipulate the migration system. Only people with relevant qualifications in occupations listed on the SOL will be eligible for independent general skilled migration.
“The Government has increased English language requirements for trade applicants and introduced a new job-ready program for onshore trade applicants.
“There is now increased priority for employer-sponsored migrants and this will ensure industry is able to quickly access the skilled workers it needs.”
First and foremost, he says, young Australians should be trained and given the opportunity to fill existing job vacancies.
“The Government has a national plan to ensure young people are skilled in the occupations where there is the greatest need. But there are some occupations where there will continue to be a high demand for skills and we welcome highly trained people to Australia to fill these vacancies.”
According to Senator Arbib, the message the Labor party has to business is that they should be doing “everything possible” to hire Australians first, and that means investing in training and career development as well as helping develop employment programs for indigenous Australians, workers with a disability, the long-term unemployed and young people.
“Before business approaches the Government for foreign labour they should have undertaken every step possible to fill the positions with Australian workers.”