Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (18:55): I have long advocated in this place and elsewhere that education is the key to opportunity and opening the door to prosperity for so many people, particularly from the electorate I am proud to represent—prosperity for individuals as well as prosperity for the nation as a whole. Labor understands that skilling Australians provides a crucial boost to productivity. That is why we have invested so heavily in school education as well as vocational education.
The bill we are debating today seeks to amend legislation, making the agency Skills Australia more responsive to industry needs through a new partnership approach to workforce development. Skills Australia is an independent statutory body, providing advice to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research on Australia’s current, emerging and future workforce skills needs and workforce development needs. Skills Australia was established by the Skills Australia Act in 2008, which specifies that members be appointed by the minister and must have experience in academia, the provision of education and training, economics and industry.
Skills Australia was intended to be the body that had its finger on the pulse of industry to better inform the government on national skills priorities, areas of workforce shortage and reforms to the national training system. However, industry groups and unions felt that Skills Australia was not ideally positioned to fulfil its mission and requested the government improve the link between the funding we provide for skills and the needs of industry as well as workplace productivity.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group all argued for a more integrated approach to tackling the country’s skills and productivity challenges. Skills Australia also recognised that, more than any other education sector, the training sector connects learning with the labour market, the workplace and community development, so in this context the government is seeking to replace Skills Australia from 1 July 2012 with the new Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency.
The aim of the agency will be to improve long-term workforce planning and development, to address the skills and labour shortages facing the country and to contribute to improving workplace productivity. In May 2011 a new $558 million National Workforce Development Fund, designed to upskill Australia’s workforce over the next four years, was announced in the budget. The new agency will work closely with industry to ensure the fund delivers training outcomes that meet the needs of industry, workers and the economy.
The bill proposes broadened functions that will give the agency a stronger research, analysis and advisory role and specifically provides for it to address improvements in Australian workforce productivity. The revised functions will also ensure the agency can advise the government on the allocation of the Commonwealth industry skills funding, including the National Workforce Development Fund. It will have the ability to advise the government to direct funding to areas of critical industry need. This is an issue I would like to come back to later in my contribution to this debate.
The bill provides for an expansion in the size of the agency compared with the current size of the Skills Australia membership and a revision and expansion of the current membership criteria. The new agency will be a fully representative body that represents industry, employees and employers and will allow the agency to meet its significant skills and workforce development agenda from July this year.
It will build on the strengths of Skills Australia. It will collaborate with industry associations, industry skills councils, unions and employers to achieve its new functions. Rather than establish this agency from scratch, the government has rightly recognised that Skills Australia possessed a range of strengths, and what it has sought to do in this bill is to retain those and to ensure the effective governance structure and the legislative framework of that body remain. Stakeholders are quite right to expect industry and unions to play a bigger role in setting the skills agenda. This will increase the likelihood of us training young Australians to perform jobs where there are known shortages and to a standard that industry requires. A perfect example of where industry has played a key role in determining where skills funding should be spent is in my electorate of Chifley at the Loyola Trade Training Centre in Mount Druitt, for which this government contributed $9 million.
From the very beginning of the planning for this centre Loyola Senior High School was engaged with local industry to determine where the greatest skills shortages were and how industry could best support the skilling of young people. For example, it had close negotiation and consultation with the National Electrical Contractors Association to help determine how to fast-track or attract more students into electrical apprenticeships. It has also worked with the Motor Traders Association and others to ensure that, when students do go on and pursue further training within the trade training set-up, there will be jobs locally to support them when they leave.
From this industry engagement, Loyola chose to develop courses and build facilities to train students in automotive, carpentry, commercial cookery, hairdressing, electrotechnology, shopfitting and metal fabrication. Having toured through the facility itself, I was impressed to see what has been achieved by the school in a short space of time. It was exceptional. Students at the Loyola Trade Training Centre are building skills that are in high demand in Western Sydney.
One industry which has impacted enormously and positively on the skills education of young people right across Australia is commercial cookery. Students have been learning to cook in schools for a great number of years and most schools would have had limited kitchen facilities for those purposes. When vocational education first ventured into the schools sector, commercial cookery made the easy transition. However, the industry had concerns about the skill level of teachers and the currency of those skills, as well as the suitability of facilities where this cookery was being taught. This resulted in a significant overhaul of these facilities, in which this government has invested some $1.2 billion.
Again, I have been fortunate to see firsthand some of those amazing commercial kitchens at the trade training centres in the Chifley electorate. Loyola, Evanside and Tyndale trade training centres all boast fantastic kitchens, with equipment that could be found in any restaurant in Australia.
In March the Deputy Prime Minister visited Doonside Technology High School to officially open the Evanside Trade Training Centre and I had the pleasure of inspecting the new and refurbished facilities, including their commercial kitchen. We all enjoyed the fruits of their labour, which was equal to catering that I have experienced anywhere else.
In the past, students who had completed a school based apprenticeship, which accounted for the first year of a commercial cookery apprenticeship, often required significant upskilling because they had had no prior exposure to much of the equipment found in restaurants. The restaurant and catering industry has significantly greater confidence in the skills that students build at schools because of their involvement in both course delivery and industry placement.
Mr Jack Joyce, Principal of Tyndale Christian School in Blacktown, has proudly told me of the achievements of some of those students. Chantelle Bills earned second place in the High Flyers Program, run by Kenvale Hospitality College and Radisson Hotel Sydney. From her studies at Tyndale she gained a scholarship to study at Kenvale while working at the Radisson Hotel. Another student, John Victor Suwa, was announced Hospitality Student of the Year in the Western Sydney area by BREED Local Community Partnership, the organisation which facilitates work placement of these students. The students have gained employment in some of Sydney’s best restaurants. Aleu Kuek now works in the kitchen of 360 Restaurant, Sydney Tower and received a promotion within three months.
James Milazzo got an apprenticeship with Tetsuya’s world-famous five-hat restaurant. There have been some tremendous achievements as a result of the investment in trade training centres in my area. I am delighted that students will have the opportunity to progress and continue in their careers as a result of this very important reform.
I mentioned earlier that, as part of the reforms we are talking about today, the agency—the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency—that we set up will have the ability to advise the government to direct funding to areas of critical industry needs.
I want to take a few moments to talk about ICT skills in this country. We have an enormous opportunity based on two things to drive further growth of ICT. Principally through the roll-out of the National Broadband Network we are completely renewing this nation’s technological infrastructure. On top of this we have an economy that is growing, that is strong and that is well ahead of most advanced economies at this point, given the state of economic conditions across the globe. We need to use this time to invest and strengthen the economy into the years ahead. While we certainly gain a lot from our resources sector, it is worth noting that in this country the internet generates almost as many jobs as mining. So ICT will be very important to this country in the years ahead.
I note that Skills Australia has been looking at a number of areas—particularly the resources sector, the defence industry, and the green skills and energy efficiency sectors—and has developed sector-specific skills needs plans. However, it is worth pointing out that the Australian Computer Society have released in the last few months details about skills needs in the ICT area. They have been warning that we are facing shortages in ICT industry professionals. They note, in particular, declining ICT university enrolments, a drop in skilled migration, an ageing workforce and community misconceptions about the opportunities and rewards associated with ICT careers. Alan Patterson, of the Australian Computer Society, said:
We should be very concerned about sustaining the momentum of our vital $100bn digital economy. Australia’s digital economy is an undeniable force for productivity and value-add for every other industry sector, providing communications, social media platforms, data management and transaction processing capabilities that drive our economic performance.
The critical role of ICT professionals in enabling our digital economy means that the highest policy priority must be directed at education and workforce planning …
He has highlighted some important statistics that I think are worth bringing to the House. At least 14,000 new ICT jobs will be created this year alone, and at least an additional 21,000 through next year, but we do need to find skilled people to fill these positions. Australian Computer Society’s statistical research shows that university enrolments in ICT are currently less than half of what they were a decade ago, and that is despite a small recovery last year. As a percentage of the total student body, ICT students are continuing to decline. That pronounced decline is also evidenced in the VET sector, where a decade ago 75,000 people received an ICT qualification. By 2010 this had declined to 46,000.
We certainly need—and the ACS calls for this—greater recognition of Australia’s ICT community as an industry sector and more research to understand why, despite the ever more compelling nature of ICT, there are not enough students choosing ICT as a career. We need improved coordination between business, government and research, particularly in the small- to medium-sized enterprise area, the SME area, where the majority of ICT professionals work. Obviously the other area that they have picked up on is improved ICT governance to support business capacity to capture the ever-increasing number of people using the internet. They have put some very important points forward that would compel further work and give further impetus for greater support in this area. I certainly back their calls there.
I had the opportunity to speak at the graduating ceremony of the University of Western Sydney’s School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics in late April. In my contribution to those students that would be going out into a growing digital economy in Australia I highlighted, too, that one of the ambitions we should have, particularly for Western Sydney, is opening up ICT corridors where companies can be able to research, develop products and potentially drive growth in export earnings for Australia right out of Western Sydney, to be able to work with the University of Western Sydney to be able to open up those corridors. But to do so we obviously need the skills and the talent of people to be there. Given the concerns raised by ACS, given that demand exists but we are not meeting that demand as quickly as we can, we do need to accelerate work in this area. I certainly am looking forward to working with UWS in this particular area of trying to open up further ICT corridors in Western Sydney. In the meantime I support the changes contained in this bill. I am confident they will produce a better skilled, more productive workforce. I commend this bill to the House.