For some time, the participation levels in apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia have been falling. The latest available data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research confirms the downward trend for the last decade. As at December 2017 there were 256,140 apprentices and trainees in training. This is a progressive fall from 435,115 in March 2013. In addition, the percentage of Australian workers employed as an apprentice or trainee has decreased from 3.3 per cent of the workforce in 2013 to 2.1 per cent in 2017.
There is a clear need to implement higher apprenticeship programs in Australia. These programs feature the best aspects of vocational and academic learning and bridge the two post-secondary education sectors in order to deliver the higher level skills increasingly required by the economy. There are many challenges in the education and training landscape to tackle in order to be able to achieve this.
The evidence to date from the Ai Group Industry 4.0 Higher Apprenticeship pilot program demonstrates that it is possible to make progress in this area. There are several important elements to achieving success in this area. High-level collaboration between VET and higher education providers is necessary to enable higher apprenticeship programs to straddle sector boundaries. Where new qualifications are required significant industry input is essential in the design and content of the program.
In addition to collaboration about qualification types and levels across the sectors, there also needs to be movement in funding arrangements. There should be no funding impediments to program implementation. The current funding arrangements make it more difficult for stakeholders to pursue the implementation of VET based programs given the higher levels of funding attracted by higher education provision.
As these higher skill level programs are delivered in apprenticeship mode it is essential for industry partners to be involved. Accordingly, the development of higher apprenticeships programs must be a direct response to industry demand for higher skills in the face of the changing economy. The Ai Group Industry 4.0 Higher Apprenticeship program was a direct response to industry need in this key area.
There are also industrial considerations to address when higher apprenticeships are implemented. What award provisions apply when apprenticeships stretch into higher education domains? This may well necessitate a consideration of altering awards to accommodate programs such as these. The level of wages for program participants is an important program implementation consideration.
All of these challenges require policy makers to view apprenticeships in a new light. It is important that employment-based programs are made available at this enhanced skill level. Higher apprenticeships have the potential to revitalise the state of apprenticeships in Australia and make appeal to a new and wider cohort. As the NCVER has commented: “Australian policy and practice appears to be lagging European educational and training practice as well as behind policy energy and ambitions in the United States.”
As already highlighted there are several challenges that need to be addressed before higher apprenticeships are firmly embedded within the Australian education and training landscape. A beginning has been made but further endeavours are necessary if Australia is to acquire the highly skilled workforce needed for the twenty-first century economy.