Following is Sussan’s speech to Independent Tertiary Education Conference (2024) – Gold Coast, QLD

I want to acknowledge ITECA, CEO Troy Williams and his team. They have been a great help for my office and for the Opposition. Thank you.

I also want to say it is great to be on the Gold Coast and I want to recognise my hopefully soon-to-be colleague Leon Robello who is our LNP candidate for McPherson who is here with me today, and of course Angie Bell Member for Moncrieff and Cameron Caldwell the Member for Fadden who are the great MPs for this incredible region.

We have just been at the wonderful French Beauty Academy where I met some incredible local businesswomen from this region, and I am always so impressed by the dynamism of this city.

So with those thankyou’s out of the way I want to tell you a bit about my story, give you my view on where the Albanese Government has taken skills since it was elected and then I want to talk about the way I am thinking about Australian skills policy and where we need to go.

Now I am proud to be here today as someone who has undertaken training through Australia’s vocational education system.

Like many Australians, then and now, when I was finishing school my parents were pretty clear with me that as far as they were concerned the only path worth taking was to go to university.

But I had my own aspirations and my own plan and I first chose to pursue a vocation, not a degree.

When I graduated school, I could think of nothing worse than sitting in an office or in a lecture hall. I wanted to fly and I wanted to fly the big jets. So I enrolled in the local training organisation and completed my course, not without struggle mind you.

But with patience and perseverance I got through and got qualified.

I’ll never forget the feeling of flying on my own for the very first time.

I felt accomplished and I felt like I had the world at my feet, and so I did.

I know what you all do and I know that you change lives.

So, skills policy is personal for me.

Now Brendan O’Connor, Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers have never taken up vocational training, in fact the Skills Minister has spent more time at Harvard than at TAFE, Jim Chalmers has a PHD in politics and Mr Albanese did an apprenticeship in union head-kicking and protest.

So it is not surprising that all too often they just do not get how to deliver skills policy.

The Skills Record of the Albanese Government

Today I want to take stock of Australia’s skills sector after two years of the Albanese Government and ask a very simple question: are the skills of Aussies better today than when Labor took over?

On almost every single metric and with every update we get, we can only conclude that the skills of Aussies are not better today, but are actually getting worse, under Anthony Albanese.

Each day under Labor means the gap between promise and delivery widens further.

We know that less Australians are taking-up new skills, not more.

If I can summarise Labor’s approach to skills at the last election, it was to make commitments to win votes as if that was an end in itself.

Labor sold us its dream that Fee Free TAFE would be the silver bullet for Australia’s skills and training needs.

Fee Free TAFE was going to solve it all, they told us, promising almost 500,000 courses.

What they didn’t tell us was they would back bureaucrats on skills instead of industry and that Fee Free TAFE would amount to little more than a funding top-up scheme for state governments.

So we have seen the Government charge ahead with Fee Free TAFE and their public servant-led spree on skills.

They rebranded the National Skills Commission to Jobs and Skills Australia and Industry Clusters to the Jobs and Skills Councils.

And we have seen them sign-up to a National Skills Agreement that provides the same amount of funding that was on the table under the Coalition with less going to students and more going to the coffers of state governments.

And let’s not forget the Jobs and Skills Summit.

Remember that, the Summit that was going to solve all of our workforce shortages?

Well, here we are, just over two years since Anthony Albanese got the keys to the Lodge and 18 months on from the Jobs and Skills Summit and after yet another Budget which will fail to skill Aussies.

At the most basic level, the test Anthony Albanese set for himself was that Labor would fix skills shortages and skill more Australians.

Well the data is in and the trendlines show that Labor is going in the wrong direction.

All of us here know that means Australians are missing out on the transformational opportunity of a skilled career.

And now more than ever we need those skills.

According to Jobs and Skills Australia, 36 per cent of occupations were assessed as in-shortage in 2023.

This is up from 31 per cent in 2022.

66 occupations were added to the in-shortage list in 2023 meaning that, on Labor’s watch, over 330 occupations are in-shortage across Australia.

Before the election, Labor described this issue as, “reinforcing the urgent need to tackle skills shortages”, and that, “after a decade of inaction, Labor would take immediate steps to plan for the future, address skills gaps and strengthen our VET sector.”

Clearly, Labor’s policies are not working.

Skill shortages have got worse, not better.

And their skills planning has allowed yoga instructors to leapfrog construction works for priority processing of skills visas, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Sadly the failures do not end with worsening skills shortages either.

We know that there are less Australians in training today, not more.

When the Coalition left office there were nearly 430,000 apprentices and trainees in-training and commencements over the year were 277,900.

In September 2023, the latest numbers we have, apprentices and trainees in-training have fallen to 365,000 and commencements have fallen to 171,700.

This means after 18 months of Labor policies, the number of apprentice and trainees in-training has dropped by 63,700. This is close to 15 per cent.

And new training starts have dropped by over 106,000 or 38 per cent.

So, skills shortages are worse , we have fewer Australian apprentices and trainees on the tools and we have an over 100,000 drop in Australians taking up a trade or a skill.

It is bad, but it gets even worse.

Even the much vaunted Fee Free TAFE program has not materially increased the number of students studying courses at TAFEs.

According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s Government-funded students and courses – January to March 2023 report, released late last year the number of government funded students at TAFE Institutes was 419,000 between January and March 2023 under Fee-Free TAFE.

This was the first quarter of Fee Free TAFE, during a period which the government has said saw Fee Free TAFE enrolments hit over 100 per cent of the allocation – so it is a good test of the level of Fee Free TAFE.

But the number of government funded students at TAFE Institutes was lower in 2023, during Fee Free TAFE, than over the same period in 2021, when the Coalition’s JobTrainer was in effect.

So we have worsening skills shortages, fewer apprentices, fewer trainees, fewer new training starts and a lower number of students taking-up government-funded courses at TAFE.

No matter which way you look at it, you can see that Labor’s skills agenda is falling flat.

With the cost of living crisis getting worse and not better, and with prices staying higher for longer, and with the tripling of manufacturing and construction insolvencies, things will only get worse for young apprentices.

And instead of stepping-up, Labor are stepping-back with a refusal to extend the Coalition’s wage supports for apprentices until they wait for yet another review to conclude.

So, while Anthony Albanese and Labor sit on their hands, the skills of Australians continue to get worse.

When you see all this it is not surprising to hear rumours Minister O’Connor has an eye on the exit.

The path forward

So what do I think about skills and training and where do I think we need to take our system?

Well I think about it in terms of immediate challenges and long term priorities.

We need urgent action to deal with the worsening crisis we are seeing in Australian skills under Anthony Albanese.

The TAFE only focus has not delivered an uplift of skills and training.

And the government’s war on training providers is damaging the brand of the sector as a whole which is the opposite of what we need right now.

In the immediate term we have to get the basics right on the economy because apprentices and trainees feel that pain the hardest.

That is why we introduced Trade Support loans and then funded the expansion of the Australian Apprentices Support Loans that the government continued.

We need to ensure we are doing what we can to support apprentices to withstand the cost of living crisis today and we have to make sure these payments make an impact.

Peter Dutton outlined our plan to get Australia back on track in his Budget in Reply.

But we also need to look at how we build up the skills system going forward.

So I can make this commitment to you all today.

A Coalition Government will put students at the centre of the skills system, not one type of provider.

We need to better support the entire skills system rather than picking winners.

In the short term we need to look at how we support students through funding in demand courses, particularly in construction, to help build more houses for Australians but it has to be based on outcomes not ideology.

We need to arrest the decline in commencements and we need to boost completions, and a critical part of that is supporting industry-led training.

We also need to look at how we incentivise training providers to invest and grow their organisations to train more Australians and I am open to your input as to how we can achieve that together.

While it is critical we address the immediate issues confronting the sector such as the cost of living crisis, the deteriorating economy and the housing crunch, we also have to address the elephant in the room when it comes to Australia and skills.

Australians are not taking up skills training.

Skills in Schools

Now I have a quote and I want you to think about:

“For too long, success for young Australians has been equated to finishing year 12 and obtaining a university degree. As a country, we pay a significant economic and social cost for this attitude. Of all the students who go into university this year, one third will not finish their university studies. Yet we face critical skill shortages in the trades, including in building and construction, metals, manufacturing and automotive.”

That quote could have been lifted straight out of the pages of any newspaper today but they are not my words, they are the words of the Howard Government in 2004.

Twenty years on, the stigma of vocational education, and the cultural imbalance with university remains.

But I think now can be a moment of real change.

If we make the right decisions, we can make a real impact on this challenge and I believe we can create a rare public policy win-win.

We can help lift our worsening performance in schools, upskill the workforce we need for strategic industries and build the reputation of vocational training up to where it belongs.

The reality is Australia will face a ‘forever skills shortage’ unless we look at long term reform that supports more Australians to get into skills earlier in their lives.

We cannot rely on re-skilling alone – we have to skill Australians sooner and to do that we need smarter systems and better policies.

In short we need to have a national conversation about getting skills back into schools.

There has been a conversation occurring within the sector for some time.

We saw this issue grappled with the Shergold Report titled: Looking to the Future: Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work.

This review called for systemic-level interventions to ensure university was not regarded as the only default pathway for students, a more intentional effort to identify students who may be suited to an apprenticeship and to provide them with access to positive role models and engaging information.

The Joyce Review called for clearer secondary school pathways, clearer pathways for skills in schools.

And now we have seen the government’s Inquiry Into the Perceptions and Status of Vocational Education and Training also reflect on the problems confronting skills in schools.

And there are some stark findings in the data.

According to the official data of around 1.6 million secondary students in Australia there were 242,945 VET in Schools students, or around 15 per cent.

Now this is a clear imbalance but when you drill into the numbers the imbalance increases.

Because when it comes to VET in Schools the most popular training package was tourism, travel and hospitality, which made up 15.7 per cent of all enrolments which was closely followed by Sport, fitness and recreation at 12.9 per cent.

Just 20,765 out of the 1.6 million secondary students across Australia are doing a school-based apprenticeship or traineeship.

Just 1 per cent.

While services-focused industries like tourism and fitness are important this makes clear that the balance of VET in Schools is not aligned with key national priorities.

The truth is we have taken skills out of schools and we need to look at how we bring them back in.

We do not have a pipeline of skills in schools that can boost our construction workforce and develop the critical skills we need to support strategic efforts like AUKUS and nuclear energy.

And we are not talking about it nearly enough.

International Examples

So in Australia we have around 1 per cent of our secondary school students taking up a school-based apprenticeship or traineeship but how does this compare internationally?

Germany is a world leading manufacturing nation and has been for a very long time.

In Germany the school system divides students along two tracks from an early age – a vocational track or an academic track.

They have specific schools for skills and for academic studies and clear pathways into higher education including university and vocational training.

About 50 per cent of all German school-leavers undertake vocational training.

In France, another global manufacturer, they have dedicated technical vocational colleges.

These secondary schools provide three years of study.

During the first year, all students study the same course, while in the second and third years students follow a common education but also choose options to specialise.

In 2021, around 23 per cent of students moving into upper secondary education entered a vocational high school in France.

In Japan, there is another model: they have a system of 57 Kosen colleges, which are Japan’s national colleges of technology.

These were founded in 1961 and have shifted from manufacturing to computer science and applied chemistry as industry needs have changed.

Students may enter these colleges from age 15, undertaking a 5-year course of study to obtain a qualification equivalent to an associate’s degree which sets most of them up for employment in the engineering industry.

The Kosen Colleges offer applied learning experiences, including apprenticeships and internships and most graduates go on to well-paying jobs in the engineering industry, and manufacturing.

While only 1 per cent of all Japanese students enter these Kosen colleges, entry is competitive and this provides a consistent group of highly skilled workers for key priorities across the economy.

Others are moving to meet skills shortages with skills in schools too. The United Kingdom is approaching it through a change at the curriculum level and has been introducing T-Levels from 2020.

T-Level are two-year courses that prepare students for entry into skilled employment, an apprenticeship or related technical study through further or higher education.

T Levels offer students practical and knowledge-based learning at a school or college and on-the-job experience through an industry placement of approximately 45 days.

Now I cite these examples not because I think we need to cut and paste a model here in Australia but because we need to be willing to have a conversation about how we get skills back into our schools.

This will not be an overnight fix or an immediate change, but this is something I believe we need to be looking at seriously.

Now I see a big role for TAFEs and training providers to step up here and it will take work with state governments too.

State governments are a key part of this conversation and I am up for working with anyone to look at this issue.

In conclusion…now is not the time for small thinking when it comes to skills, we need to be willing to think big and I welcome your ideas.

But I truly believe we need to have a national conversation about bringing skills and training to the centre of our national focus because the promise of a skilled career has never been greater.

We have a deep cultural problem in Australian society when it comes to skills and VET. But it is not something we have to accept, we have the power to change it.

I know the answer is more skills, not less is the answer.

So thank you all for what you do and thank you for sticking it out.

Believe me when I say we will turf out the Albanese Government sooner than you think.

Hang in there.