Solving the skills crisis


26 April 2022

Australia’s skills shortage was already real. Then COVID-19 made it much worse.

The National Skills Commission (NSC) has declared shortages in almost 20 per cent of 799 occupations. Teachers, engineers and roles in the healthcare sector, chefs, trades, shearers and hairdressers are among those jobs for which employers are finding it impossible to fill positions.

While this picture is grim enough, the future’s not looking rosy either. Demand for these and many other jobs is forecast to increase.

Demand is growing rapidly for the 153 occupations that Australia needs to fill most urgently. And, of the 646 jobs for which there is currently no shortage, 93 per cent are also expected to face rapid demand, says the NSC’s report, The State of Australia’s Skills 2021: now and into the future.

The report says the path forward for Australia’s economy is a workforce skilled in care, computing, cognitive ability and communication.

Funding cuts have failed TAFE

The skills crisis affects every industry, so it makes sense that Australia’s national publicly funded vocational and training infrastructure is supported.

But major funding cuts have damaged TAFE’s ability to respond. Since 2013, more than $3 billion has been cut from VET (Vocation l Education and Training) funding and the Coalition government has channelled some of the money to poor-quality private training colleges.

The Coalition government has failed TAFE, says AEU federal TAFE secretary Maxine Sharkey.

“Before the funding cuts, TAFE employed senior educators who were closely involved in future-proofing industries,” says Sharkey.

“Those educators would liaise with industry to help predict skill shortages up to 10 years ahead.

“We need a proactive VET (Vocational Education and Training system) and a proactive public education system to rebuild our economy and reskill people,” says Sharkey.

To understand the effect of the Coalition’s funding cuts, the AEU surveyed 1000 TAFE staff last year.

More than 80 per cent of respondents said budgets in their departments had decreased, while nearly half of those in teaching roles said class sizes had increased.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed also said their institution had cut courses in the previous three years. Respondents also reported inadequate investment in capital works and equipment.

The ALP has promised that, if elected, it will provide 465,000 free TAFE places, $50 million for new equipment and facilities and a guarantee of 70 per cent of total government funding for TAFE.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe welcomed the announcement saying “the AEU has been calling for the restoration of funding and proper support for TAFE for a long time, culminating in our #RebuildWithTAFE launched earlier this year. These commitments will restore TAFE as the anchor institution of vocational education”.

A positive cycle

Apart from TAFE’s role in helping to rebuild the economy, it’s a “major economic industry in its own right”, according to analysis by the Centre for Future Work.

The Centre’s 2020 report, An Investment in Productivity and Inclusion: The Economic and Social Benefits of the TAFE System, calculated $92.5 billion in annual economic benefits from TAFE’s economic footprint, the higher earnings and productivity achieved by TAFE graduates and the fiscal savings from social benefits.

And there are the benefits that are more difficult to put a dollar figure on. For example, says Sharkey, TAFE helped to revive communities after the summer 2019-20 bushfires on the NSW South Coast.

“Unionists walked in and said let’s rebuild your community with TAFE by running some free basic courses such as in fencing and maintenance. It gave the community a morale boost and they had new skills they could use immediately.

“When we rebuild TAFE, we rebuild our communities and the economy. It’s an ongoing positive cycle,” Sharkey says.

By Margaret Paton

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2022