Calls to end trade career stigma in schools as tradies do better than uni grads

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
6 Min Read

Experts have called to end the “societal stigma” of choosing trade school over university pathways, which has left apprenticeships and traineeships “significantly undervalued”.

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

The call for change comes after the release of the federal government’s Employment White Paper late last year, which outlines a policy roadmap for future jobs, including ambitious reforms to Australia’s Vocational Education and Training sector.

Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 1,218,000 Australians were enrolled in a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate study in 2022, compared to just 297,000 enrolled in apprenticeships or traineeships.

That is despite a recent research paper from peak employer industry organisation, 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 choice.

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 says.

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

“A recent project AI Group undertook to promote careers in engineering trades to young women surprised us when we found that many schools and many career teachers were still unaware of trade pathways.”

The building and construction industry has forecast it will require 230,000 more technicians and tradies over the next three years – with the majority needing to enter the industry through a trade apprenticeship.

Hunter Trade College in New South Wales has been a leading example of the benefits promoting apprenticeships and traineeships as alternative educational pathways can deliver, winning the ‘Australian Training Awards – School to VET Pathway Award’ in 2021.

The College’s CEO, Mallory Gleeson, told Build-it that the government’s focus on widening participation in higher education was partially a result of the 2008 Bradley review, a government-induced independent report to review the future of higher education, which had potentially drawn students away from VET education by biasing university pathways.

“Australian schools have always been geared towards university entry and society has long valued this pathway ahead of apprenticeships,” Ms Gleeson says.

“There is a perception amongst students, parent, carers and teachers that vocational education caters to ‘less academically oriented students’ and that trades would not provide a competitive edge.”

Ms Gleeson hoped the government’s planned VET reforms would address the bias in schools and help ensure students are better informed about the available options, such as transferring to a trade school or taking up a vocational course at their current school.

“The government needs to address the policy bias that favours funding university education over funding vocational education and training,” she told Build-it

“Parents and carers play a significant role in helping young people determine their education and career choices. Ensuring they also have access to relevant information may help them to understand the options – you can’t perceive what you can’t see.”

AI Group’s Megan Lilly agrees but warned it would take a long time before VET and university pathways were seen on an equal footing.

“There is no ‘quick fix’ to addressing cultural bias, but the strategies are clear. Students need to know more about trade pathways and to see and hear from more successful young people who have taken that pathway,” she told Build-it.

“Governments have put a lot of funding over the years into promoting trade pathways…the National Careers Institute is a prime example. But somehow, the messages still don’t cut through.”

Ms Lilly says the VET pathway restructure outlined in the government’s whitepaper would make trade careers more appealing to students.

“One issue has always been that while trade pathways are available for large numbers of people, the application process is not as simple as applying for a university place.”

Although the pathways might be extensive, she told Build-it that “the opportunities depend on companies offering a few apprenticeships here, a few there”.

“If all of these opportunities could somehow be brought together into a central place, it might help open people’s eyes.”

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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.