For centuries apprenticeships and traineeships were the main way in which young people learned a profession, gaining on-the-job experience and instruction while earning a small wage. But in recent decades, emphasis shifted to keeping kids in school longer, while policy makers came to consider the numbers of young people choosing to study at university as a marker of policy success. At the same time, businesses which had once had a culture of apprenticeships turned to labour hire, subcontracting, or overseas recruitment to hire in skilled workers, saving themselves the effort and investment in training up the next generation. As a result, traditional employment pathways withered, leading to growing youth unemployment and skills shortages, which were highlighted when COVID-19 suddenly prevented businesses from bringing in skilled labour. Apprenticeships weren’t being talked about, so they became harder to talk about.
How do you tell a story in a language that’s been lost?
That is the question that faced the group training sector, a not-for-profit sector dedicated to supporting apprentices and trainees through their learning journey, while also supporting businesses with the administrative and HR challenges of employing and training young people.
These days, journalists, politicians, and government policy makers have almost all come through the university system – they have no personal experience of apprenticeships and often very little contact with people who have completed their education in this way. Explaining how vocational education works to people with an academic background can be like teaching someone a completely new language, with its own system of grammar.
We needed a way to help explain the issues facing our client, the Apprenticeship Employment Network (Victoria), which also operates as the Global Apprenticeship Network (Australia). So we started by laying out the basic vocabulary.
Creating cheat sheets and a policy alert service for media
Agenda C spent a lot of time reading up to get our heads around Australia’s complex vocational education system, so we thought we’d create a digest of that information to save time-poor journalists and policy makers from having to do the same. We created a set of plain-English one-pagers on different aspects of the system which people engaging with it need to know. These one-pagers could be quickly pulled together into policy briefs that AEN/GAN could take to government meetings. They could also be used to brief journalists and provide them with an easily referenced takeaway.
Playing the long game
Then we identified a small round of journalists interested in workplace and education policy and offered them briefings around policy discussions. When the government released expert reviews, sometimes running to hundreds of pages, we read them first and worked with AEN/GAN to draw out key points for the media. When the Productivity Commission released analysis, we lined it up against government policy and highlighted the discrepancies. Understanding that this was a long game, our goal was apprenticeship literacy in the media, providing constructive criticism of suggestions from the position of real-world experience, and actionable recommendations for policy makers.
At the same time, we found ways to tell the stories of young Australians choosing the apprenticeship pathway, highlighting the career potential opened up by learning a trade.
Slowly but surely, the issue came back onto the agenda
Due to the hard work of AEN/GAN and many other apprenticeship advocacy groups, policy makers became aware of the importance of apprenticeships as a pathway for Australians into secure, skilled work. In 2019, the Morrison government received and committed to acting on the Strengthening Skills report, an expert review commissioned from former New Zealand minister, The Honourable Steven Joyce. Upon taking power in 2022, the Albanese Labor government held the Jobs and Skills Summit, recognising vocational education as a crucial way to rebuild a culture of apprenticeships in Australia.
Now that the case for apprenticeships is made, it’s time to focus on how they are best supported
Of course, just because the government now recognises the value of apprenticeship pathways doesn’t mean they know how to foster an apprenticeship culture. The work of the AEN/GAN to make policy makers aware of how group training organisations help people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain skills is ongoing. It isn’t happening overnight, but slowly and surely it is happening. And for the sake of millions of young Australians, it is worth it.