November 25, 2020

Skills Matter! Without them our prosperity will be constrained

By Ian Curry - National Coordinator, Skills, Training & Apprenticeships, The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union

Workers at the frontline

2020 has brutally exposed many of the underlying weaknesses in our society. Weaknesses that are the result of decades of slavish adherence to failed neo-liberal economic doctrine. A doctrine where the economy ‘trumps’ all else. Where self-reliance and individualism are preferred over social responsibility. A doctrine where privatisation, corporatisation, casualisation and contracting out of public services are touted on the promise of more efficient delivery leading to better outcomes for all.

Anyone else’s mind drifting to flying pigs?

We’ve mindlessly handed public services over to private interests, and those private interests have been callously dismissive of any suggestion they owe anything to the society they profit from.

Between devastating bushfires and a global pandemic we are reminded that, when it really matters, it is not the captains of industry, $20m CEO’s or economists that we turn to, it is the aged care workers, nurses, cleaners, food processing workers, retail workers, essential services workers, police, ambulance officers, and of course the teachers, early childhood educators and other critical support workers we have depended on.

Nearly every facet of our society has been severely tested, but it is the skills, dedication and sense of collective responsibility of our frontline workers, rather than the ‘thoughts and prayers’ of politicians, the economic rationalists, or the corporate leaders who were amongst the first to put their hands out, that we depend on.

Australian workers, often the victims of the callousness of corporate Australia, have every right to note the incongruity in government responses when capitalist markets operate exactly as they are meant to and throw a massive wobbly.

They immediately call for governments to roll out huge dollops of nasty, evil socialism to stimulate the economy in order to save good wholesome capitalism from itself.

I’m not opposed to a bit of socialism, far from it. I’m keen however to make sure it operates to fix the underlying problem, rather than simply rewarding the bad behaviour of the capitalists that got us into strife in the first place.

Importance of TAFE

Which brings me to skills and the importance of TAFE. We simply cannot afford to continue to get skills and workforce development wrong.

Whether in the workplace, negotiating with employers, or on the committees and boards where decisions are made about skills, the AMWU approaches our engagement with the vocational education & training system based on the following principles:

    1. Vocational skills are central to our ambition to create a well-educated, socially capable and resilient Australia with the skills to face the future;

    2. Vocational education and training is essential to creating industries and enterprises that are productive, can compete globally, and can provide secure employment and career path opportunities for workers;

    3. A skilled and adaptable workforce, productively deploying its skills in the economy, represents a high value public good that is worthy of public investment in the public interest;

    4. Dodgy, for-profit VET providers are failing to produce a skilled and adaptable workforce;

5. We need a high-performing, well-resourced, public TAFE provider at the centre of the VET system.

Manufacturing workers, more than most, understand the transformational power of a high-quality vocational education delivered by a publicly owned TAFE. For most of us, the skills and capabilities we developed at TAFE have underpinned our working lives and enabled us to establish and maintain a decent standard of living.

Future generations may be denied those opportunities as a direct consequence of the ideological obsession conservative governments have with ‘smaller government’ which is code for wealth transfer from publicly owned entities, operating in the public interest, to a rampant private sector operating solely for profit.

TAFEs regional footprint

This is particularly true in regional Australia where over 270,000 manufacturing workers are employed, almost twice the number employed by the mining sector.

Regional workers earn 20 per cent less than their metropolitan counterparts, experience higher levels of unemployment, and they have poorer access to vocational or university education.

If regional Australia is to survive and prosper, there is no doubt that skills and high quality vocational education and training will be central, as will reversing the idiotic decisions of conservative governments to source major purchases off shore solely on the basis of upfront contract price. As the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union stated in its submission to the inquiry into Jobs for the Future in Regional Areas

“This is perhaps best characterised by the New South Wales State Government’s decision in 2016 to award the contract for the new Intercity Regional Rail fleet to a South Korean consortium. The 512 rail cars are set to be delivered for a contract worth $2.3 billion over a fifteen-year period. The State Government decided to procure the cars in South Korea, despite one of the primary rival bids proposing to manufacture and assemble them in Illawarra, creating 600 direct jobs in one of New South Wales highest unemployment regions.

As described in the Centre for Future Work’s report ‘Penny Wise & Pound Foolish’ the claim that the South Korean bid was 25 per cent cheaper at face value does not stack up when factoring in the positive externalities of large scale investment and manufacturing when it occurs in regional areas – direct employment, benefits to upstream and downstream industries, expanded supply chains. The project itself has also been plagued with delays and issues regarding the upgrade of stations to accommodate the new trains.”

Decisions such as these weaken our economy, weaken our national workforce capability, and exacerbate the boom-bust nature of our economy. The damage plays out in lost learning and job opportunities for coming generations, and in our ability to develop the skills we need to build the future we want.

That is one of the many reasons we need a well-resourced, publicly owned network of TAFEs to rebuild our national skills base and provide opportunities for coming generations. The alternative is to leave vocational education and training to the very ‘market’ that is currently destroying our social and economic cohesion.

Industry 4.0

The challenges to manufacturing workers posed by increasing integration of digitalization, cyber-physical systems and remote sensing (often referred to as Industry 4.0), naval shipbuilding, and the plethora of other opportunities heading our way, require a comprehensive response by government, employers, the VET sector and, of course, unions. The Morrison Government has no plan to deal with this, other than to let “market forces” and discredited trickle-down economics rampage through the economy.

COVID-19 has shown us that in times of challenge we need national approaches and leaders that bring people together. There is no doubt that our training system has also worked best when the leadership of it is national, truly tripartite, and when unions are accepted as genuine social partners.

COVID-19 has also taught us how quickly things deteriorate when national consensus degenerates into jurisdictional squabbling.

We think there are a number of changes required in the system:

• The restoration of genuine tripartite leadership with industry, employers and unions at the forefront.

• Unambiguous commitment to maintaining a strong competency-based national training system, backed up by an equally strong commitment to high quality vocational education available to all.

• Less bureaucratic jurisdictional micro-management of the system.

• Reducing proliferation of training products and concentrating Training Packages on articulating occupational standards for appropriate occupations such as the trades.

• The establishment of industry endorsed National Framework Curriculum aligned to occupational standards to rebuild certainty in training outcomes and manage the debacle that is the current approach to training policy based on an ideologically driven obsession with competition and choice.

• The establishment of a funding and compliance regime that is based on a realistic cost of delivering high quality training and assessment that will produce the skilled workers we need.

This article originally appeared in the Australian TAFE Teacher Magazine, Spring 2020