(Image: ABC)

The claim

Apprenticeships help skill up the workforce and can unlock a lifetime of job opportunities for those lucky enough to secure one.

Both major parties are promising to boost apprenticeships, amid claims by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that the Coalition Government is to blame for creating a “crisis in trades training”.

“They have a shocking record on vocational education,” he told reporters recently, before claiming the number of apprenticeships in Australia has fallen.

“It was 420,000 before the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government. Now it’s south of 280,000 and declining.”

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Shorten said he wanted to return Australia to being a “tradie nation”.

“What I need to do is remedy the crisis in trades training which the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments have created in Australian apprenticeships,” he said.

So, has the number of apprenticeships slumped since the Coalition took office in 2013?

And if so, can blame be laid at the feet of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison administrations?

RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Shorten’s claim is misleading.

Apprenticeships have long been associated with traditional trades, such as plumbing.

But traineeships are a newer type of training program and are typically associated with the services sector, retail being one example.

The latest official data shows the number of apprenticeships (broadly classified as trades) has been in decline since mid-2012, but there has been a much more dramatic decline in traineeships (broadly classified as non-trades).

Shorten used the term “apprenticeships” when speaking to reporters, but he was, in fact, referring to combined figures for apprenticeships and traineeships.

September quarter figures show there were 485,440 people in training for apprenticeships and traineeships in 2012 — higher than Shorten’s figure of 420,000.

By September 2018 this had fallen to 267,385, a drop of 45%.

When the numbers are separated, it’s clear the sharp overall decline is driven by the fall in traineeships, which slumped by 66%, compared to apprenticeships, which fell by 18%.

Conflating the numbers may not seem unreasonable since the Government’s own website states that “apprenticeships” are “often referred to as apprenticeships and traineeships”.

However, Fact Check deems Shorten’s claim to be misleading as his comments were made within the context of traditional trades; he referred to there being a “crisis in trades training” and expressed his wish to return Australia to being a “tradie nation”.

Further, policy changes actually introduced by the Gillard government in 2012 aimed at addressing widespread rorting of incentive payments to employers led to the sharp decline in traineeships, which became apparent from 2013, the year the Coalition came to power.

The more moderate drop in apprenticeship numbers was largely in response to labour market changes and the decline in traditional trade industries, such as automotive manufacturing and mining, according to experts consulted by Fact Check.

Getting the definitions right

Apprenticeships are programs mostly associated with traditional trades that train people to become, for example, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, printers, hairdressers and mechanics.

They combine employment and formal training and have been well recognised since the post-war period.

Traineeships also involve employment and formal training, but were established in 1985 to provide opportunities in the non-trade or services sector, typically in retail, hospitality, administration, childcare and aged care.

Getting the numbers right

Data produced by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) does not distinguish between apprenticeships and traineeships.

But it does divide data into trade and non-trade sectors, which broadly align with apprenticeships and traineeships respectively.

This data is produced quarterly and consolidated annually.

Apprenticeships and traineeships are measured as commencements, completions and in-training.

When asked for the source of his numbers, Shorten’s office referred to the official September quarter figures for people in training in 2012 and 2018.

The NCVER collated September quarter “in-training” figures for Fact Check from 2009 to 2018 (the latest available).

These show an overall drop of 45% from 2012 to 2018, with the decline mostly driven by a slump in traineeships (down 66%), ahead of a fall in apprenticeships (down 18%).

As the chart below shows, the numbers of people in training for both apprenticeships and traineeships peaked in 2012.

Since then, apprenticeship numbers have remained relatively stable, while traineeships have fallen sharply.

Dashboard 1

In his comments to reporters, Shorten provided combined numbers for apprenticeships and traineeships yet referred only to apprenticeships”, creating a misleading picture about a crisis in the traditional trade-based apprenticeship system.

However, Professor Peter Noonan, an expert in vocational education at Victoria University, and colleague Sarah Pilcher, say there is, in fact, no crisis in trades training.

In an article published by The Conversation in 2017, they argued that not only was it misleading to present figures in this way, but that many parties on both sides of the political divide, including industry groups and trade unions, had done so at various times to suggest there was a crisis in Australia’s apprenticeship system.

The academics argued that while apprenticeship numbers had fallen, a closer examination revealed that, in some industries, apprenticeships had experienced recent growth, while for others there had been a decline.

Read the rest of this Fact Check over at the ABC

Principal researcher: Sushi Das, chief of staff



Bill Shorten, transcript of Melbourne doorstop, March 27, 2017

Peter Noonan and Sarah Pilcher, ‘There is no apprenticeship crisis in Australia’, The Conversation, September 1, 2017

‘Apprenticeship in Australia: an historical snapshot’, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 2001

Geoff Gilfillan, ‘Trends in apprenticeships and traineeships’, Parliamentary Library, 2016

Peter Noonan and Sarah Pilcher, Finding the truth in the apprenticeships debate’, Mitchell Report no. 03/2017, August 2017

Apprentices and Trainees September quarter 2018, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), March 5, 2019

Expert review of Australias vocational educational and training system, 2019

Senator Michaelia Cash press release, April 2, 2019

Chandra Shah and Janine Dixon, ‘Future Job openings for new entrants by industry and occupation’, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 2018

Australian Government apprenticeships website

Commonwealth Department of Education and Training website

Brian Knight, ‘Evolution of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia: an unfinished history’, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 2012

Timeline, ‘A brief history of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia’, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 2018

Treasurer’s Budget speech, 2019

© RMIT University 2019