As the number of apprentices and trainees taking up skills and training collapses across the country, instead of taking action the Albanese Government has kicked the can down the road with yet another “strategic review”, all but cutting skills out of the upcoming Federal Budget.

Labor’s latest review follows two years’ worth of processes which could have, and should have, looked at these policy settings, including the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Employment White Paper and the National Skills Agreement. It means Australians will need to wait another six to twelve months for any direction from Labor on apprentice supports and incentives.

Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor’s “strategic review” of the Australian Apprenticeships Incentive System will remain open for submissions until 15 May, a day after the Federal Budget will be delivered. This all but rules out any new structural supports for apprentices and trainees in the Government’s plans for May’s fiscal update.

As Labor kicks any action into the long grass, apprenticeship and traineeship commencements and in-training numbers are in free fall and the much vaunted Fee-Free TAFE policy is not making up the numbers.

Labor pledged that Fee-Free TAFE was the answer to skills shortages. But just last week Departmental officials confirmed that two years into government Labor is running a national skills deficit. Officials confirmed Fee-Free TAFE program has only delivered 23,286 newly skilled workers from 300,000 enrolments to date.

The figures were forced out of the Albanese Government at Senate Estimates after the official mandatory data reporting documents about Fee-Free TAFE was blocked from publication under the justification it would “damage Commonwealth-State relations”.

The National Centre for Vocational Education and Research also confirmed at Senate Estimates that commencements have dropped by 40 per cent since Labor took office with 110,000 less Australians enrolling in a new qualification, taking up a trade or a training course.

Taken together these numbers demonstrate Labor’s Fee-Free TAFE skills policy has failed to maintain, let alone increase, the number of apprentices and trainees taking up training.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Skills and Training, Sussan Ley said the latest decision to delay action demonstrates that instead of solving skills shortages, Labor is baking in a national skills deficit.

“This ‘strategic’ review is less a strategic review and more a strategic delay, it is taking submissions until the day after the Federal Budget, this all but rules out any new support for struggling apprentices,” she said.

“Anthony Albanese is baking in a skills deficit which is making us more reliant on foreign workers, this is not what he promised at the election.

“The data is clear, despite all of Labor’s promises to skill Australians their policies are failing, there are now over 50,000 less apprentices and trainees today than when Labor took office and we have seen over 110,000 less Australians starting a new course, qualification or trade.”

As has become the default position for Labor, Minister O’Connor talked down the record numbers of apprentices and trainees taking up training under the Coalition claiming that completions must be the focus of the review.

The link between commencements and completions was made clear by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) Apprentices and trainees 2023 – June quarter report. It found that completions increased by 13.6 per cent to 101,580 in the 12 months ending June 2023. Completions in non-trade occupations increased by 14.7 per cent to 53,445. Trade completions increased by 12.1 per cent to 48,035. NCVER Managing Director Simon Walker attributed this increase in completions as “a result of increases in commencements in recent years.”

Trade apprentices in-training hit record highs in the final months of the Coalition Government and as of June 2022 there were 429,000 apprentices and trainees in-training, 25 per cent more than at the same time in 2021. After just one year of Labor this number has now fallen to 377,645. There are over 50,000 less apprentices and trainees in training today than when Labor took office, a loss of one in ten. Under the Coalition’s final year of government apprentices and trainees increased across 99.3 per cent of electorates whereas under Labor’s first year of government numbers dropped across 97.3 per cent of electorates.