Apprentice numbers plummet by 25 per cent as career guidance bias cops blame

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
6 Min Read

There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to Australia’s construction labour shortage. 

In fact, according to the sector’s latest workforce figures, it’s now unlikely there will even be a tunnel in the first place. 

Construction industry apprenticeship numbers concerningly plummeted last year with a 25 per cent reduction compared to the previous 12 months. 

The sharp decline has worried state governments and industry leaders alike, who are tasked with finding an additional 230,000 technicians and tradies over the next three years to meet the nation’s construction goals. 

The newly released data shows that just 42,333 new apprentices started their training in the year leading to September 2023.

That’s compared to 56,444 who chose to enter the industry between the year before. 

Less students starting apprenticeships wasn’t the only concerning figure announced, with a lower completion rate of 7.9 per cent pointing to higher dropout rates within the building and construction training space. 

Moreover, there were 3239 fewer total building and construction apprentices on the tools than prior to September 2022. 

Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn says the figures, coupled with workforce exit rates, meant Australia was falling behind in the race to meet both its climate and housing targets. 

“We need more apprentices starting and completing their training in trades,” she said. 

“The building and construction industry workforce is ageing and has a typical exit rate of 8 per cent a year. Master Builders estimates we need half a million new entrants over the next three years.”

“We are not doing enough to plug this gap. There are not enough new entrants to the industry to meet building and construction targets, including 1.2 million new dwellings under the Housing Accord or the transition to net zero by 2050.

Just last week a new government-backed task force was established in order to help search for solutions to Australia’s worsening skills shortage in the construction sector. 

The launch of BuildSkills Australia is aimed at helping develop a workforce plan to tackle the nation’s dire skills and training shortage, which is predicted to sit at a deficit of a forecast deficit of 131,000 full-time workers by the end of 2024. 

However, Ms Wawn believes that the recruitment battle begins before students even leave mainstream education, which she says has a bias toward university education, leading would-be apprentices to choose a degree over jumping on the tools. 

“Vocational education and training have been seen as second-class citizens to universities for far too long,” she said. 

“Master Builders has long advocated for the bias that leads people away from the VET system to be dissolved.”

Peak employer organisations and the nation’s leading trade colleges agree, saying parents’ and schools’ favouritism of university education has left many students overlooking trades as a career option.

That’s despite a report last year by Australia Industry Group, showing those who had completed an apprenticeship or traineeship had the best employment outcomes of all pathways and were also the most satisfied with their career decision.

AI Group Head of Centre for Education and Training, Megan Lilly, told Build-it that “cultural bias” meant many students and parents were unaware of the benefits apprenticeships offer.

“There is still a cultural bias towards university pathways…many parents want their children to aspire to a profession, like doctors or lawyers, and this is especially true for people from non-English speaking backgrounds,” she said.

“The fact that most schools still measure their success by their average ATAR score compounds this issue.”

The Federal Government’s Employment White Paper has already outlined ambitious reforms to Australia’s Vocational Education and Training sector aiming to put construction jobs on a level playing field with university education. 

The changes would support career advisers to help young people make informed pathway choices based on employment, job satisfaction and salary data while promoting VET-based careers for women and delivering national campaigns to promote VET as a whole.

Ms Wawn says making construction careers more attractive to today’s youth was an essential step to building up apprentice numbers across every state. 

“The recently released report on the inquiry into VET perceptions has rightfully made recommendations to putting VET and higher education on equal footing, investing significantly in careers education from an early age,” Ms Wawn explained. 

“We know what needs to be done, and federal, state and territory governments have an enormous task of unwinding decades of neglect, so it’s time for rubber to hit the road.

“Construction is the backbone of the Australian economy, employing approximately 1.3 million people, providing infrastructure, commercial and community buildings, and homes for the growing population.

“We need to change people’s perceptions of working and needing a vocational education to look at trades as a pathway into a vibrant, well-paid and very large industry.”

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.