Labor policy – national trade cadetships

Over the last two days, Julia Gillard has outlined the ALP’s policy on apprenticeships and trade training. Yesterday, she announced National Trade Cadetships, and today, official work experience places. Both of these were announced at press conferences, where details were verbally conveyed. The policy document on the cadetships can be found here on the ALP website.

The scheme will have two streams, foundation cadetships and pre-apprentice cadetships.

Foundation cadetships are designed to assist students who may be considering some kind of trade career, but do not know what kind they want to pursue. It would teach basic skills like workplace health and safety, teamwork, and self-development, along with literacy and numeracy. The final structure would be developed by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA), the organisation responsible for developing the national curriculum, in conjunction with Skills Australia and various industry skills councils.

Pre-apprentice cadetships are targeted programs for those students who have already made a decision as to what type of trade career they wish to pursue. It would teach specific vocational skills within a group of trade ‘families’ (for example IT and construction). Like the Foundation cadetships, these would be developed by ACARA in conjunction with relevant industry skills councils. They would also be accredited courses as pathways to formal apprenticeships, with credit recognised for achieving competencies in areas such as occupational health and safety.

Both forms of cadetship can be undertaken alongside the usual school curriculum. Alternatively, they can be used to fast-track towards a desired career.

According to the figures quoted in the policy, this initiative will cost $3.1m over 2 years.

At the end of the policy was an attack on the proposal announced by the Coalition to close existing trade training centres and scrap plans for new ones, as well as a claim that the Howard government’s technical schools program had failed. It ran for half a page as a series of bullet points.

The cadetships proposal goes hand-in-hand with the Trade Training Centres (TTC) program, which has come in for quite a bit of criticism. Of a promised 2650 centres (one for each secondary school), only 22 are projected to be up and running by next year. Another point of contention has been raised by the Liberal Party, which claims that these centres merely duplicate existing vocational arrangements in schools, and the role of TAFEs.

The slow delivery of these centres is a big problem for Labor. Unless the rate of roll-out increases dramatically, Labor will have difficulty meeting its commitments for cadetships by 2012. This could set back the cadetships program even further, and may even result in a failure of the project.

The question of duplication of service is a bit more slippery, however. The TTC program is designed to either build new centres or upgrade existing arrangements for vocational education in schools. The funds allocated to the program are constrained – they can only be used for equipment or capital works programs, such as rewiring old buildings or constructing new ones. The program guidelines specifically state that applications for funding must avoid ‘duplication of existing infrastructure’.

On the question of the cadetships program itself, a potential pitfall exists. Students who elect to pursue a cadetship rather than continue their secondary education may find, down the track, that they have painted themselves into a corner. If transition to formal apprenticeships is not facilitated, those students may be in a position where they are specifically, but not generally skilled. This could materially affect their chances of future employment.

Now admittedly, this is a nit-pick. Students would have the option of side-by-side training and secondary education. The foundation cadetships also provide basic skills applicable to a wide range of occupations, avoiding the problem of over-specialisation. It is a concern, though. If the program were implemented, students should be informed of their choices and their potential consequences.

Following on from the cadetships proposal, today Gillard announced that a Labor government would introduce up to 50,000 official work experience places, each lasting for 2 weeks, to commence from 2012. This would be administered by existing group training organisations, who are currently responsible for helping students finding apprenticeships. Undertaking work experience under this program would be accredited towards completion of a Certificate course.

Work experience, of course, is nothing new. It has existed for decades as part of the Australian secondary school system. I remember spending two weeks at The Age delivering mail, making coffee and occasionally being pressed into service as a copy-typist when the workload increased (most memorably, taking dictation of a very long report from Parliament from Michelle Grattan – a formative experience, perhaps). These arrangements have generally been made on an ad hoc basis, however. Students may work alongside their parents, or approach local businesses. Occasionally, organisations such as the Leader group of newspapers will offer a limited number of places.

Labor’s program attempts to impose a formal structure on this arrangement, specifically targeted at trades occupations. Students would not have the pressure to make their own arrangements. Additionally, it would go a long way to resolving the problem of a student being stuck in a work experience position that neither interests them, nor facilitates a career choice.

It is projected to cost $25m.

The program, of course, depends on TTCs, just like the cadetships proposal. Because of this, it is vulnerable to the same potential problems of delay or failure. On the face of it, though, there is little to criticise here apart from the time taken to roll out the program. In itself, the work experience idea seems sound.

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