Trade Support Loans Amendment Bill 2023, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2023
I rise today in support of the Trade Support Loans Amendment Bill 2023. This bill aims to expand the list of apprentices that are eligible for trade support loans. These loans provide almost $23,000 to an apprentice who is completing their qualification in a traditional trade. Apprentices who successfully complete their qualification receive a 20 per cent reduction in their loan obligations to further encourage them to finish their apprenticeship. This bill means that the list of occupations eligible for the loan will now be expanded to other areas where we’re experiencing skills shortages—areas like early childhood education, aged care and disability care.
This type of support is so important for people who are getting trained to fill our workforce gaps. Data from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations shows that recipients of these loans are more likely to complete their apprenticeship. Completion rates are about 10 per cent higher for those who’ve taken out a loan than for those who haven’t. These loans help with the cost of living while people are on low pay at the beginning of their apprenticeships. Things like groceries, petrol, getting to work and paying rent are key cost-of-living issues. We know how hard it is for students to train or study and earn a living at the same time, so I support this bill as one step towards supporting people to get skilled up in the areas that are needed most.
Everywhere I go in my electorate of Indi, it is jobs and skills shortages that people tell me about, whether they are constituents from businesses, organisations, hospitality or whatever. Across the board in our regional centres, our bustling tourist hotspots and our small towns, employers are struggling to find staff. Job ads go unanswered or the staff available don’t have the required skills. There are also notable times when employers find someone who’s willing to take up a job but finds it impossible to find somewhere to live. This is happening again and again.
Workforce challenges in rural, regional and remote Australia are different to those faced in the metropolitan areas. In Indi the unemployment rate is below the already historically low national unemployment rate. People aren’t talking to me about creating jobs; they’re talking to me about filling jobs. The lack of workers is dampening our productivity. It’s forcing restaurants to leave tables empty due to a lack of staff, or businesses to knock back clients because they know they can’t fulfil orders. The quarterly update released last month by Jobs and Skills Australia found that skills shortages are particularly persistent in regional areas, more so than in metropolitan areas. JSA identified cooks, chefs, electricians and early childhood educators as some of the greatest areas of need. I hear about skills shortages in these important occupations all the time.
High-quality, accessible early childhood education and care is an essential service in a community where we want maximum workforce participation. For parents, it allows them to work, to train, to study—to open doors; for children, it keeps them safe and healthy and is crucial to their development. But in regional and rural Australia we are really struggling to find a childcare workforce. In Indi we’ve experienced the threat of closure in several small towns where the market is thin and the childcare workers are just so scarce. Each month, parents write to me about how hard it is to find a childcare placement for their child. They tell me this means they’re delaying going back to work. Many of them are critical healthcare workers such as psychologists, doctors, nurses and pharmacists, not to mention logistics supply people and all the other people we have in our regions. The lack of available places is actually severely compounding the problem of essential worker shortages in Indi. In Wangaratta, some children have been on the waitlist for 18 months along with 100 other families. In Bright, there’s a 70-child waitlist. In Wodonga, families have their children on waitlists at 10 or more centres, and they still can’t get a spot. Working parents are forced to quit their jobs—I’m not exaggerating—or reduce their hours because there are just not enough childcare places. This is simply because we do not have enough educators. One educator in Wangaratta who has worked in the sector since 1994 tells me she has never seen the level of educators so low.
This bill will help support people studying to be early childhood educators—the childhood educators we so badly need—but so much more needs to be done in addition to that. A longer-term agreement aimed at driving sector reform and supporting women’s workforce participation is still being negotiated by the government, and I sincerely hope that growing the childcare workforce is directly addressed by this agreement. I also call on the government to fully implement the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy, which seeks to address recruitment, retainment and sustainability of the childcare workforce. I also welcome the upcoming comprehensive review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on child care. I look forward to reading their findings and recommendations and working with the government to see them fulfilled. I am looking at the minister right now, and I really want to work with you on this to solve this intractable problem that we have right now.
Like early childhood educators, we also have a shortage of aged-care and disability care workers. Health care and social assistance are actually the largest occupation in my electorate of Indi, hiring over 11,000 people, but between June 2020 and March 2023, job vacancies for carers and aides went up a whopping 412 per cent in my electorate—a staggering figure of 412 per cent. The workforce shortages in this area are stark. Across Indi, aged-care facilities tell me how incredibly hard it is to attract the much-needed workforce just to keep their doors open. Without an adequate workforce, facilities go under, and the consequences are felt right across the community. A major employer is lost, a skilled workforce is gutted, and families don’t have a facility nearby to care for their mother, father, husband, wife, friend, neighbour or loved one.
The disability care workforce in regional Australia is also lacking. The NDIS National Workforce Plan released in 2021 projects that regional Australia will need an additional 90,000 workers by 2024 to meet demand, but it acknowledged that longer vacancy times and smaller applicant pools make it particularly challenging to attract workers into regional communities. So we need to continue providing incentives for people to train in our caring professions, and I look forward to working more with the Minister for Skills and Training about what we can do to address the severe lack in such critical occupations in our rural, regional and remote areas in particular.
After health and social assistance, construction the next major employer in my electorate of Indi. According to statistics provided by the Master Builders Association, in Indi we have over 7,000 people employed in building and construction. According to the Victorian Skills Authority, construction is also our third-highest area for additional workforce, requiring an additional 1,100 full-time equivalent workers over the coming years. Trade support loans were originally intended for technician and trade apprenticeships like plumbers, builders and electricians. I support the bill’s expansion of who can access support loans beyond these traditional areas, but let’s not forget how critical supporting apprentices in these trade areas is. With demand for more housing like we have not seen for decades—maybe not since the Second World War, actually—these plumbers, builders and electricians are going to be the ones that build the houses we desperately need for other essential workers like childcare workers, doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a shortage in trade skills too. One builder in my electorate says that he’s never seen such a shortage of skilled practitioners in his 40 years of industry experience. He says that, in the regions, this shortage is acute and is absolutely directly affecting their capacity to address the housing crisis.
I’m pleased that the government is carrying forward the previous government’s budget measure that provides additional funding to increase the list of apprentices eligible for loans. We can’t scale back support for apprentices in our trade sectors at a time like this, and I’m glad that the government has recognised this. But, like all student loans right now, these Australian apprenticeship support loans are also facing a 7.1 per cent indexation. This is the highest indexation rate in more than three decades. A HECS loan will go up by an average of $1,760 a year with this indexation, and many in my region are now looking at their qualifications as, indeed, a lifetime debt burden.
Under this bill, people studying early childhood education, disability and aged care—people who are mostly women—will benefit most from the expanded student loan plan. But it will mean that they, too, will be saddled with another debt, and this debt burden is particularly hard right now when we’re facing a cost-of-living crisis. The government has powers to fix these crippling student debts. I urge them to do so.
I recognise that the government is investing in other skills and training opportunities by delivering, since January, 180,000 fee-free TAFE and vocational education places. Last month, the government announced that 33 per cent of these places taken up so far are in regional and rural areas. I am so pleased to read that statistic. Again, we know the workforce gaps in regional Australia are worse than in urban areas. The uptake of these TAFE places is further evidence of this.
In my electorate, Goulburn Ovens TAFE—or, as we call it, GOTAFE—in Wangaratta and Wodonga TAFE are training people up to work in our local construction and electrical businesses, aged-care homes and childcare centres. Wodonga TAFE CEO Phil Paterson says that fee-free TAFE has been an outstanding success for local students embarking on new careers, returning to work or making a career change. He says that fee-free TAFE and the expansion of trade support loans remove barriers to locals pursuing in-demand careers, like early childhood education and disability care.
While I’m pleased about the government’s increased support for vocational training, like we see under this bill, we need to do a whole lot more to keep supporting our TAFEs. Phil Paterson observes seeing more and more students without the numeracy and literacy skills to complete vocational education. We need to adequately fund our TAFEs that are providing this type of vital enabling education and training. We also need to see more support to upgrade TAFEs infrastructure. We simply can’t take on skills developments in rural and regional TAFEs for these jobs while we have 1970s infrastructure. When I visit these TAFEs, as I do very regularly, I see passionate educators and dedicated students. I see a lot of hope, but I also see ageing infrastructure.
Wodonga TAFE is already making a great start on upgrading infrastructure. Only last week I attended the opening of their newest facility, the Trades Training Centre, funded by both the Commonwealth and the state governments. This impressive multilevel building on the Wodonga TAFE campus incorporates state-of-the-art classrooms, the latest specialist equipment and hands-on practical workspaces to train the next plumbers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, electrotechnologists and others. Wodonga TAFE also has a fantastic partnership with the Australian Defence Force to train defence personnel in these vital trades. They’re benefiting from these new facilities. So I congratulate CEO Phil Patterson, board chair Allison Jenvy and all of the board and staff on this incredible achievement. I hope to see similar infrastructure built right across regional areas into the future.
Jobs and Skills Australia, or JSA, are going to be a critical part of advising government on future ways to build and support our workforce. It will be advising government on which occupations should be eligible for the Australian apprenticeship support loans. I was very pleased to work with the Minister for Skills and Training to amend the JSA bill to ensure that one of JSA’s functions is to analyse skills and workforce needs in regional, rural and remote Australia. When JSA’s work becomes publicly available, I will be closely following what recommendations it makes to government to address the workforce needs, specifically in regional Australia. I’ll make sure the government continues to take up these JSA recommendations so that we can hopefully start to see an improvement in regional workforce shortages.
I support this bill as a measure towards helping people complete their qualifications in the areas where we need them most, but we can’t lose sight of the unique needs and opportunities in regional Australia in developing labour markets, skills and training needs. In Indi we are passionate about developing the workforce for the future. I speak to employers, educators, apprentices, trainees, young people who are starting their careers and older people who want to rejoin the workforce. Let’s keep working together, let’s collaborate, let’s be clever and let’s make sure that we support these people to get the skills and qualifications they need and we need.