The profit and loss of skills

How do we lose when profits drive skills? Why are tradies and TAFE lecturers campaigning against TAFE cuts and privatisation plans?

The State School Teachers’ Union of WA, representing TAFE lecturers and the WA Jobs from WA Resources group have released figures detailing $50 million in TAFE funding cuts since the Barnett Government came to office. Over the same period private training providers have had their funding increased by more than $50 million.

The trend towards privatisation is clear. New systems for spending of Commonwealth training money must be decided upon by the WA Government, yet these have not been revealed in advance of the coming state election in WA.

There is a real risk that privatisation of vocational training will grow further. Why should we be concerned?

We know from experience elsewhere that privatising TAFE means higher fees, fewer TAFE courses, campus closures and, ultimately, poorer workforce skills. Private training providers focus on improving their profits, often by cutting corners and costs which lower training standards. They tend to market short and low skill courses.

According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research we now have in WA 2,300 fewer apprentices in training in engineering, automotive and construction trades than we did four years ago.

When training systems are not right, employers pursue the lazy option and seek skilled workers from interstate or overseas. The skill shortages in WA are particularly serious for tradespeople – those who need to commit to training of three or four years to acquire high skill levels. Often this is in areas where equipment and other costs are high. Where training is expensive. In these areas TAFE is far better placed to deliver than private providers.

Apprentices often have to survive on very low wages, leading to high drop-out rates, made worse when training is of a poor quality. Traditionally manufacturing industries and the public sector, particularly large public sector utilities, have been an important source for apprentice employment and workplace training. However both are suffering.

Larger and especially smaller engineering companies are folding as they wait for weak WA local content measures to work. Public utilities in electricity, water and roads are increasingly facing cost cutting, out-sourcing and privatisation. This has contributed to declining apprentices.

Cut backs to TAFE and privatisation plans need to be viewed in the context of this loss of capacity to build our own workforce skills.

Some may profit now, but we will lose in a future with lower skills.