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This shift towards online learning raises some questions - how exactly can a computer teach a bricklayer to build a wall?

How exactly can a computer teach a bricklayer to build a wall?

Photo: Fairfax

By Dawn Walker

Jobs and growth. It’s a familiar promise. But when it comes to young people and unemployment, our nation faces a paradox – and a crisis. We have many young Australians who desperately need jobs. And as the Boomer generation of workers retires, we have many jobs that desperately need filling. Why then today’s mismatch, and its miserable consequences for far too many young people?

A report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence revealed more than a third of all unemployed people in Australia are aged 15-24. The youth unemployment rate is above 12.2 per cent, double the national unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent. To put that in context, 11 per cent unemployment is equivalent to the overall joblessness rate experienced in the early 1990s after a global recession – the highest in the last 20 years. Outside metropolitan areas, the statistics are worse – with areas like Murray in NSW recording youth unemployment levels of 21.5 per cent and the Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands almost 29 per cent. This is a youth unemployment crisis.

The confusing part is this; there are jobs available. The 2017 Skills Shortage List NSW listed 25 occupations where businesses were experiencing a shortage or difficulty recruiting. And there will be more in the future, according to a report by the National Centre for Vocation Education Research, which predicts increasing job opportunities for young people as the Baby Boomer generation retires. More than half of employers in NSW say they are experiencing skill shortages – and 64 per cent of the jobs we need filled are in the trades. This reflects NCVER’s analysis modelling, which found only a quarter of workers will be employed as professionals by 2024, while every trade will experience job growth in their market.

So what’s going wrong? The jobs available are largely in the trades, which require vocational education. Vocational education and training (VET) used to be synonymous with TAFE; a system that was affordable, trusted and recognised by industry. A TAFE qualification meant graduates were job ready; having gained practical, hands-on training delivered by teachers with real industry experience.

Dawn Walker, member of NSW MLC.

Dawn Walker, member of NSW MLC.

Photo: supplied

But the institute that was once the world leader in vocation education has suffered from persistent funding, staffing and resources cuts in recent years, gradually eroding its valuable role. Last year in NSW, $105 million was cut from TAFE’s annual budget. Since 2015, 5000 TAFE staff have been cut, taking with them irreplaceable experience and knowledge. Increasingly TAFE campuses are being closed, like Quirindi, and replaced with Connected Learning Centres (CLCs). CLCs effectively replace TAFE campuses with online learning hubs, taking students out of classrooms and putting them in front of computers. This questionable model is set to be rolled out across the state. There is very little face-to-face training and practical skills are taught intermittently via a mobile workshop. This shift towards online learning raises some questions – how exactly can a computer teach a bricklayer to build a wall or a mechanic to fix breaks safely and effectively?

One thing is very clear. Vocational education helps young people get jobs. In 2015, 64 per cent of 15-19-year-olds and 75 per cent of 20-24-year-olds who completed a VET course were employed six months after graduation. Conversely, unemployment and underemployment among young people is a vicious cycle; the longer they are out of work the harder work becomes to find.

At a national level, there is also much at stake. Younger Australians should be the engine of the economy, the generation who will drive future prosperity. As Australia’s Baby Boomers reach retirement our demographic map is shifting; by 2054 we’ll have only 2.7 tax-paying workers per retiree, compared to 4.5 workers in 2015. That’s a lot of economic heavy lifting for young people; especially if they have been hobbled by unemployment and skills shortages.

International and Australian research demonstrates that investments in vocational education generate good returns for individuals, and economy and society, particularly as a means of addressing inequality. And the value of VET is widely recognised by business. Last year the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, called for renewed investment in, and focus on, VET. Researchers on the NCVER report are urging the government to direct resources where they are most needed, to help young people map a path to future opportunities. VET training is an area that offers opportunities but is deeply under-resourced.

We cannot afford to continue defunding and degrading our public TAFE system. To truly have jobs and growth for the future, we need to give young people a chance to gain the skills they need to find employment – and to be part of building the Australia of tomorrow.