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Young male engineer talks with female supervisor while looking at computer screen in high-tech factory

Advanced apprenticeships will boost skills for future jobs, but not in time to counter COVID impacts

The Australian government has released a series of manufacturing industry policies in the lead-up to the October 6 budget. Yesterday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke about a A$1.5 billion strategy to strengthen Australian manufacturing and supply chains. Last week, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a A$7.2 million extension of advanced apprenticeship pilot programs across the country to teach students the high-level, specialist knowledge and skills they’ll need for industry jobs of the future.


Read more: Scott Morrison names six priority areas in $1.5 billion plan to boost manufacturing


COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of Australian manufacturing. Recent research ranked Australia lowest in the OECD for manufacturing self-sufficiency.

The government wants to expand work-integrated learning. Its aim is to strengthen the link between training and future industry needs, and significantly lift workforce skills to meet the requirements of the digitally driven Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The investments in Australia’s future workforce, businesses and economy are welcome. However, the training program will not solve the unemployment problems and skills mismatch in the short term, given COVID-19’s impact on the economy.

Where do advanced apprenticeships fit into this?

The main aim of advanced apprenticeships is to strengthen relationships between universities and industry to produce highly skilled graduates for an Industry 4.0-driven economy. This is all the more important in light of the government’s JobMaker Digital Business Plan to drive economic recovery.

Advanced (or higher) apprenticeships combine higher and vocational education. Student “apprentices” are exposed to a combination of systematic, on-the-job (vocational) training and higher degree education.

This approach is the basis of the German education and training system. In recent years, concerns about manufacturing’s decline in many developed economies have prompted governments to adopt aspects of the German model.


Read more: The UK is rethinking university degrees and Australia should too


In Australia, Siemens, the AiGroup and Swinburne University launched the first digital technologies advanced apprenticeships pilot in 2017. In a two-year Associate Degree in Applied Technologies, student-apprentices work for a host employer and attend university for periods of 6-8 weeks followed by similar periods of applied learning in the workplace. They do 22 weeks of full-time study a year, with 26 weeks in the workplace and four weeks’ annual leave. The program has won industry awards.

Supervisor explains something to two students
In advanced apprenticeship programs students divide their time by university and the workplace. Shutterstock

The extra funding will extend the program beyond Victoria to New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Preparing skills for future jobs

Advanced apprenticeships are especially relevant to rapidly changing sectors such as advanced manufacturing. Higher-level skills are increasingly in demand as emerging and disruptive technologies automate lower-level tasks.

Jobs that draw on digital and related skills have been growing more rapidly than jobs in the so-called legacy economy. This is because the technological innovations underpinning the digital economy demand higher-level skills. These disruptive technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and digitisation.


Read more: Jobs are changing, and fast. Here's what the VET sector (and employers) need to do to keep up


COVID-19 has accelerated this trend. The need for up-skilling and training is urgent, to ensure tomorrow’s graduates, as well as the existing workforce, have the skills to take advantage of job opportunities in the digital economy.

The federal government believes in the power of free markets. But it recognises market failure exists when it comes to students’ preferences for skills development versus educational institutions having the right training to meet future industry needs. As a result, many young people’s career expectations were concentrated in ten so-called “20th century” careers such as doctors, teachers, lawyers and business managers. They could struggle to find relevant and consistent work in the future.


Read more: If you're preparing students for 21st century jobs, you're behind the times


This approach doesn’t offer a quick fix

Our research highlights a major gap in Australia between what education and training providers are delivering and what business and industry need. Programs such as advanced apprenticeships in digital technologies will help to reduce this mismatch.

However, the pilot programs are not a silver bullet to solve the problems of skills and employability in Australian manufacturing, for several reasons.

First, this is a long-term solution. In advanced apprenticeship programs, students take two years to gain the associate degree and longer for a full university degree. Swinburne University’s first pilot intake in 2017 has only just gained undergraduate qualifications.

Two apprentices examine a component in a high-tech factory
Students undertaking advanced apprenticeships take two years to complete an associate degree and longer for a full university degree. Shutterstock

This training will not solve the mass unemployment due to the COVID-19 shock nor cushion the impacts of the roll-back of Jobkeeper and Jobseeker.

Second, while the government says its manufacturing strategy will create up to 80,000 direct jobs and about 300,000 more indirect jobs, advanced apprenticeships will not be the main training pathway. These programs have relatively small intakes and are niche in nature.

The first Swinburne pilot enrolled only 20 students. Similar small intakes are likely at other universities in the extended program.

One aim of the pilots is to involve more local firms and small to medium-sized enterprises. But how many will be willing (and able) to invest in these initiatives amid the economic uncertainties of the pandemic?

More questions than answers

The lack of detail in the apprenticeship announcement raises other questions.

First, it is unclear to what extent the government has collaborated or consulted with the states and territories and industry bodies. This is essential because the pilots involve both vocational and higher education aspects of learning. The Joyce Review and the Productivity Commission both emphasised the need for collaboration.

Second, why are only universities being targeted? And why do the extended pilots include only two dual-sector universities (Swinburne and RMIT)?

Perhaps the aim was to align the training element with the research element for the federally funded Industry 4.0 Testlabs in six selected universities. However, not all these universities are part of the advanced apprenticeship pilots.

Despite the positive spin about inter-government collaborations as a result of COVID-19, this does not appear to be happening in skills and training. Industry groups have therefore taken the initiative to work directly with the states and territories and with vocational education providers.

Further details may be revealed after the budget and the Productivity Commission’s final report on its review of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development.

For pilot programs to be successful, especially in the context of high market uncertainty and rapid technological development, they need to be given room for experimentation. The extended advanced apprenticeship pilots are welcome steps in this direction. They will help overcome the inaction of recent times on the changes needed in education, skills and training to ensure students are better able to meet the future needs of employers.

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