||Issue No. 255||11 March 2005|
A Skillful Ruse
Workplace: Dirt Cheap
Industrial: Daddy Doesn’t Live With Us Anymore
Economics: Who's Afraid of the BCA?
International: From the Wreckage
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Meat and Three Veg
Savings: Super Seduction
Politics: Popping the 'E-Word'
Poetry: To Know Somebody
Review: Off the Rails
The Locker Room
Banks Are Great
A Skillful Ruse
While our captains of industry moan about a shortage of labour and calls for more government hand-outs, and policy makers scratch their heads about the appropriate response, nobody seems to be talking about the bleeding obvious - this is a failure of market deregulation writ large.
There was a time when the big public sector agencies not only delivered services to the community but were the training ground of the blue collar workforce.
Qantas, Telecom, the railways, electricity commissions and water boards - they trained young Australians in their tens of thousands every year, a public investment in the nation's future economic prosperity.
As recently as the mid-eighties Government Business Enterprises employed 21 per cent of all electrical apprentices, 10 per cent of building apprentices and nine per cent of metal apprentices.
Through the late eighties and nineties these organised were privatised or corporatised on the grounds that private sector disciplines would lead to 'more efficient' service delivery.
Deciphered, this meant that in order to deliver a profit to either shareholders or the government, the said organisations would need to shed workers, charge consumers more and pay their managers a whole lot extra.
To prove their inflated value these managers would need to find ways to cut the costs of their organisation and one of the easiest cuts was getting rid of apprentice schemes.
After all, when you judge your performance over a 12 month cycle, where is the benefit in investing time and effort in training someone who may not reap a return for years into the future?
They were nothing if not effective. By the late 1990's Government Business Enterprise apprenticeships had been reduced by 80 per cent. In all, it's been estimated that the withdrawal of the public sector accounted for around one third of the decline in apprentice intakes over the last 10 years.
So what happened to the training agenda?
At the behest of business, the government switched the emphasis to government subsidies via the New Apprenticeship schemes, a version of corporate welfare designed to provide a cost incentive to invest in young people.
True to form the business community has proceeded to rort this system in a manner that would do the National Party proud, turning burger flipping, cappacino making and cleaning into 'trades' - despite the fact these are high-churn industries where the benefits of training are never realised.
Of course, the attraction of this type of training is that it is cheap and fast for the employer to deliver - compared to the rigour of traditional apprenticeships; while failing to demonstrate any semblance of a career structure.
The collapse of public sector apprentiships and the abuse of these youth training subsidies are the root cause of the decade-long lag in training that is now biting us on the collective backside.
The response of our pro-business, 'let enterprise be free', federal government has been illuminating.
First and foremost, it is attempting to dampen the economically rational response to high demand in labour (ie wage rises) by taking away the few remaining rights to collectively bargain. Even business, when you strip away the BCA opportunism, recognises that IR is not the main game.
In fact, if the New Zealand experience is anything to go by, deregulation actually exacerbates the skills shortage - the lower wages pushing workers offshore leaving a massive gap in the labour market.
Secondly, it is throwing more money at employers to establish their own training institutions, free of the constraints of educational principles - surely a case of throwing good money after bad.
Instead, government - at both federal and state levels - should be using its considerable influence as a purchaser of private sector goods and services to require training of young people. The seeds of such a procurement policy have already been sown in NSW and should be expanded.
And finally, in a superb display of political irony, they are opening the gates to guest workers to fill the short term gaps, many of whom could well be the more fortunate cousins of the political refugees we went into a lather trying to keep out of our country just a few short years ago.
The skills shortage exposes weaknesses in the Australian economy, but in addressing the impact in a piecemeal fashion that is still premised on the efficiency of the free market, we risk compounding the problems even further.
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