National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 Second Reading Speech

June 16, 2020


This is one of the issues that's going to be key in our ability to help people recover from the economic crisis and from the financial crisis they have personally faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. When I think about 31,000 apprenticeships and traineeships disappearing from New South Wales, it's a horrific thought, particularly for a community like mine in the Hawkesbury where so many people have built their business and their life on their apprenticeship. They started out wanting to be a plumber or wanting to work in construction and, through that, working in a family business or for a friend of a family member or finding their way into an apprenticeship in some of our fantastic small business areas, they then went: 'You know what? I don't just want to work for someone else. I want to work for myself.' I think we forget about the pathway that is laid by having a strong VET system. These bills which start to improve the system, although not to the extent that we would like, will really make a difference to kids' lives. We, of course, would like to see a much bigger difference being made, but we obviously won't oppose this bill.

One of the issues that has been raised with me over the years has been the quality of ASQA's governance. People have found it very difficult to find their way through the bureaucracy and the procedure involved. So I think the key amendments here—revising ASQA's governance structure and replacing the existing chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder, or a CEO—are really important. I hope that makes a difference. I hope the establishment of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council, which is intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator, also makes a difference.

In relation to the value of TAFE, I'm very lucky to have within my electorate of Macquarie a wonderful woman who heads up the TAFE Teachers' Association, Annette Bennett. She works tirelessly to make sure that not only are the interests of students fulfilled but also the TAFE teachers are treated the way they deserve to be. They are people who are absolutely expert in what they do. Not only have they achieved a professional standing that is recognised by their peers, but they have also chosen to give up their professional ability to earn money in that capacity to say: 'Look, I want to share what I know. I want to share my expertise and my skills with people.' It is people who are really driven to share their expertise who help us transfer the skills to the next generation. so I think we should all be commending TAFE teachers for the work that they do.

We recognise that we need a fair and considered approach to these ASQA reforms and we will support the changes that improve the organisation's capacity to ensure it is responsive to students, communities and employers, but we do not support the changes that attempt to weaken the regulatory framework.

I just want to talk more about the broader need for reform in TAFE. This really is just another little adjustment to a system that has been undermined for the nearly seven years of this government. There haven't been things that have built up TAFE; there have only been things that tear it down. Every member in this place can see it with their own eyes in their own electorates, where the range of courses that used to be offered in a TAFE are no longer offered. You can't get the specialty manufacturing skills needed for the manufacturing sector in the electorate of Macquarie any more, nor can you get it in large areas of Western Sydney. You need to travel a really long distance to be able to do certain courses.

I'm all for bringing together specialities, but you also have to make TAFE accessible. You can't make it hard for young people who have simply stayed in their suburb and gone to their local primary school and then their local high school, being all of a sudden asked, even before some have their licences, to travel large distances. Keep in mind that Hawkesbury, in particular, doesn't have good public transport connections with so many other TAFEs. For instance, to get to the Kingswood TAFE you need to catch a train to Blacktown—that's a hike in itself—change trains and head back in the other direction to get to Penrith. In a car it's an easy half-hour drive but by train can take over an hour and a half. These are the sorts of things that really go to the heart of TAFE—making training accessible.

I think the coronavirus outbreak has really brought home to people the need for accessible education. There are many people who are now on jobseeker or JobKeeper and are likely to lose their JobKeeper payment and their job come September. They'll be asking themselves: How do I retrain? What system do I want to go to? How do I know I'm going to get quality training for the money that I spend? It's not just a token amount any more. We're now talking about serious expenditure. It's a heavy debt that people carry for the privilege of learning.

More than ever, we need to think about how we make TAFE accessible and how to build up its capacity for the many new people who, until now, might not have considered the need to reskill. With coronavirus and the crisis it has brought to the economy, they will recognise the need to shift their skill base. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. Not only am I concerned, come the end of this year, about the people whose jobs will disappear in September but I'm concerned about the people in years 11 and 12 now. I've been speaking to a lot of year 12 students. Many of them do want to get an apprenticeship. They don't see university as the most appropriate path for them, but they want an apprenticeship. I had contact from a constituent recently whose son lost his apprenticeship during this coronavirus pandemic. He's desperate to get back into it, to find a new employer and to pick up that apprenticeship to further his career.

Right now we should be talking about capacity building in TAFE. While in this amendment there is a slight adjustment in hopefully the ability of the TAFE to deliver a quality product, it's not what we need. We need way more than what is being offered in this and other pieces of legislation that have come to this chamber in the last week or so.

I don't think you can talk about TAFE without talking about the skills shortages. It strikes me that there'll be additional skills shortages going forward. In 2013, I lost my house in a bushfire and for the next few years there was a shocking shortage of brickies and roofers. I know the Blue Mountains had to have roofers brought down from northern New South Wales to meet the demand, and that was a fire that took out 200 homes. Now we've had fires across the state taking out thousands of homes, so we are really going to struggle to find the tradespeople to be able to do those rebuilds in a timely fashion. It isn't good enough to just say, 'What we've got will do,' and nor is it good enough to rely on bringing in temporary workers from overseas. The only reason you would do that is if you were using them to train up your people and create more traineeships. But, as we've seen under this government, we're not seeing more trainees and apprenticeships created; we're seeing fewer.

There are fewer apprenticeships and trainees now than there were when Labor was last in government, and that is a shocking statistic for people to consider. But it's not surprising when you know that this is a government that spent seven years cutting funding while also underspending on what had been promised to the sector. Rebuilding our skills and our training sector is crucial, and I look forward in coming months to seeing some legislation before the place which actually talks about rebuilding the sector.

We need to properly fund our TAFE and apprenticeship program. We need to see something that makes up for the $3 billion of cuts to TAFE and training in recent years, and the government needs to restore all the funding that it's cut by investing in training so that the next generation of tradespeople actually find their way into TAFE and have a supportive mentor—someone who is willing to take them through the hard yards. It isn't easy to say, 'I'm going to take on an apprentice.'

I've spoken to a lot of builders in the last few months for a whole range of reasons, from bushfire to HomeBuilder. They say that it's harder than ever. The support for them as employers is less than they've seen for themselves in previous years, and many have chosen not to keep on taking apprentices. We need to reverse that. Those employers have such depth of knowledge to share, but we all know what it's like having work experience people in our offices. It takes time to make it a really worthwhile process for them. Now do that tenfold with apprentices, and it does take a real commitment from an employer. So I salute the employers who do have apprentices and who are willing to take them on and invest in them, whether it is in the construction industry or whether it's in the hair and beauty sector, where there is also big demand.

I've talked to some fantastic operators of hair and beauty salons. Linda Fenech, who is considered to be a real leader in her industry, is based in Richmond. Linda has a team of girls. She admits she's tough, but they absolutely recognise that. She is not only tough but fair. She sets for them a really high standard of work. That's the sort of person we need and the sorts of ideals we need, but those employers need to be supported to be able to take themselves away from their business so that they can mentor, teach and guide their younger apprentices.

I suspect that, in the wake of COVID and the job losses that we've already seen and the ones that we all expect to see, it won't just be young people who will want to be apprentices. We will need to have people willing to mentor and train up older workers who can see that there's an opportunity and that we should be creating that opportunity. We should be making it easy for those people to see an alternative pathway in a whole lot of ways, such as by making it accessible to find out what the pathways are online.

The other thing I absolutely think we need to be looking at is how we tie together university and TAFE. The two of them work so effectively together for so many of the jobs of now and the jobs of the future. I'm very lucky to have a TAFE and Western Sydney University campus side by side at Richmond, and they are looking at all sorts of agricultural initiatives that will involve students from the TAFE as well as the university researchers.

One of them is to do with periurban cropping. How can we use the giant greenhouse at Western Sydney in the Hawkesbury campus to expand what is available for local use but also for export? They have a vision of having a logistics hub placed right next to that. They have a proposal to the government for that. I urge the government to consider supporting the Western Sydney proposal for a logistics hub that not only would help periurban producers in my electorate—especially in the Hawkesbury and parts of the Blue Mountains—but would help producers all through Western Sydney. It would also create opportunities for export, because if we can do work on how to grow things so that they travel easily and if we look at, logistically, how we package them, we give ourselves an edge for exports to Asia. They are the sorts of things that generate more jobs and generate apprenticeships in a whole range of areas.

Of course, the other thing TAFE campuses need is some investment. Absolutely, go for the great big new things, but we could also do with improvements. The greenhouses at Richmond TAFE desperately need updating. They're 30 or 40 years old. They're still working, because the TAFE teachers and the people who work at TAFE just keep on getting the best they can out of them, but one of my election commitments was to upgrade them. That's the sort of thing this government needs to be doing.