Jobs and Skills Australia Amendment Bill 2023

10 May 2023

Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (17:17): I rise to speak on the Jobs and Skills Australia Amendment Bill 2023. This bill follows through on the Albanese Labor government's commitment to the Australian people to build a national partnership to drive VET education and strengthen workforce planning by working together, as the previous speaker said, with employers, with unions and with the training and education sector. This bill amends the Jobs and Skill Australia Act 2022, providing for its permanent functions and governance arrangements.

The second tranche of amendments has been informed by significant stakeholder engagement through the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Senate committee inquiry into the first bill, a discussion paper seeking public comment and bilateral and other targeted engagement.

The major difference to the governance of the proposed permanent model is embedding the commitment to its tripartite governance, with the Jobs and Skills Australia commissioner supported by deputy commissioners and a tripartite ministerial advisory board.

Under proposed permanent arrangements outlined in this bill, Jobs and Skills Australia will take on a broader range of functions, including: identifying labour market imbalances and analysis of the role played by the demand and supply of skills; building an evidence base of the impact of various workplace arrangements, including insecure work on economic and social outcomes; analysing workforce needs and skills needs to support decision making in relation to Australia's migration program and in regional, rural and remote Australia; undertaking studies, including opportunities to improve employment, VET and higher education outcomes for cohorts of individuals that have historically experienced labour market disadvantage and exclusion, such as women, people over 55, people with disability, youth, unpaid carers and First Nations Australians; and contributing to industry consultation forums.

The bill will include a statutory review of Jobs and Skills Australia, to commence within 24 months of the commencement of the amendment bill, to ensure it is operating as intended. This is a breath of fresh air for the VET and skills sector, particularly in my community, who have suffered under the mess and mismanagement of those opposite. Let it never be forgotten—the Liberals legacy of $3 billion cut from the skills portfolio, including $1 billion from apprentices, resulting in a serious skills-gap crisis, and overseeing a decline which peaked at 150,000 fewer apprentices. How can one forget when the then Minister Pyne was running around trying to get up his plan for $100,000 university degrees and university deregulation.

Those opposite took their eye off the ball and let the shonks and sharks have free reign in our VET and skills sector. It was those opposite that let the most vulnerable in our community get preyed upon by shonks and sharks signing them up to courses that were unsuitable and landing them with debts that they were never going to be able to repay. What was the result? A $3 billion blowout of the VET FEE-HELP program. So much for fiscal responsibility and restraint!

A structured, well-considered jobs and skills body with a proper governance structure may come as a bit of a surprise to those opposite. What also might be a surprise to those opposite is the collaborative tripartite approach that this bill brings to workforce planning. This bill legislates the requirement for Jobs and Skills Australia to consult with the Ministerial Advisory Board, which that will consist of state and territory representatives, industry stakeholders and unions, also education providers and other members in the development of its work plan.

This approach was strongly supported by stakeholders throughout the consultation process and will ensure that the workplan directly aligns to addressing workforce shortages and building long-term capacity in priority sectors. I note that the process of consultation has resulted in the amendment that we now see before the chamber, an amendment which seeks to expand representation of this tripartite expertise, including expertise which can be found in the small-business community and rural, regional and remote Australia. The increase of members representing employers from three to four now guarantees representation for small business.

Consequently, to ensure that balance on the board continues, the number of members representing unions also increases from three to four. But this tripartite approach is not new or radical. For Labor, this is how we have governed, in the best interests of Australians, for decades. The bill also embeds flexibility to ensure Jobs and Skills Australia can best respond to emerging needs and priorities in response to changing economic conditions.

Experts will be engaged under a written agreement on a time limited, or study-by-study basis, ensuring sector-specific experience, influence and networks are brought to each of Jobs and Skills Australia's workforce and cohort studies, or detailed regional assessments. Both the tripartite representatives and independent experts with skills and experience could include experts from tertiary education, employment and industrial relations, with experience in data and analysis, workforce planning, regional organisations and those representing priority cohorts and those most disadvantaged in the labour market.

As I have stated, the board will include participation from employer organisations and unions. This will be fair and equitable. This balanced, fair, considered, knowledge based approach is exactly what we need to tackle the skills and labour market challenges that Australia faces. The challenge that Jobs and Skills Australia is facing is by no means minor. Australia has the second-highest labour supply shortages across all OECD countries.

Currently, three million Australians lack the fundamental skills required to participate in training and secure work. An estimated nine out of 10 new jobs will require post secondary school education, with four of these requiring VET qualifications. Australia is currently experiencing skills shortages across many critical industries. Of the top 20 occupations in demand, seven have a shortage that is primarily driven by a lack of people with the required skills, reinforcing the importance of our skills system in addressing these shortages.

This Labor government and the minister have not wasted any time in tackling these challenges, as last night's budget demonstrates. We are already delivering 180,000 fee-free TAFE and VET places in 2023, along with investing in support for apprentices, particularly for those choosing to take on new energy apprenticeships.

Our 2023-24 budget builds on over $400 million provided in our October 2022 budget for a further 300,000 fee-free TAFE and VET places in high-skill needs areas from 2024 to 2026, subject to agreement with states and territories. In addition, last night's budget delivered an additional $3.7 billion upon striking a five-year national skills agreement with the states and territories to ensure more access to vocational education and training, with TAFE at the centre. We also have $436 million over four years to fundamentally reform the way
the Commonwealth delivers foundation skills programs and an additional $54.3 million in critical Australian apprenticeship supports to improve completion rates, improving the quality of services and better targeted support, which will be particularly crucial to supporting women, First Nations people, CALD apprentices and people with disability to complete their apprenticeship. There is also $8.6 million to deliver the Australian Skills Guarantee and introduce national targets for apprentices, trainees and paid cadets working on Australian government funded major infrastructure and ICT projects. This includes responsible subtargets to boost women's participation in apprenticeships.

There is also $42.2 million to develop a modern, fit-for-purpose IT system for the VET student loan program, a long overdue upgrade. Locally in the Illawarra, Labor's investment will see $2.5 million for a renewable energy training facility at Wollongong TAFE, which will include upgrades to equipment and teaching aids. We're also investing $10 million to establish an energy future skills centre located at the wonderful University of Wollongong, so we have the skilled workforce to build the grid of the future. Labor is also investing more than $1 million in a University of Wollongong study finding ways to keep Australia's grid secure through the renewable energy transformation.

These commitments in my community will also be supported by the new energy apprenticeships program, which will back young Australians to train in jobs of the future and help power Australia's path to net zero emissions. Apprentices training in eligible occupations in the clean energy sector can now attract up to $10,000 in direct support, helping them to manage the cost of living while they train in the sectors essential to Australia's transition to a clean energy economy. Unlike the mess and mismanagement of the former government, this side of the chamber is getting on with the job of fixing the problems, investing in skills needed for our future prosperity.