Trainees and apprentices: beat the skills shortage

While lacking experience, apprentices and trainees can bring practical and financial benefits to a business. Diving into this recruitment pool might quench your skills drought.

The skills shortage is crimping business throughout Australia, but apprentices and trainees can fill the void. Inexperience is not necessarily a negative. Filling these blank slates with industry-specific knowledge can mean you get the kind of employee you need, while contributing to creating a skilled labour force.

“From a small to medium-sized business point of view, there are a lot of advantages in taking on apprentices and trainees,” says Jim Barron, CEO of Group Training Australia (GTA). “They help to build and solidify the foundations of a business, particularly for SMEs. They’re really investments.” Barron believes investing in an apprentice or trainee can equal securing the future of a business. By acquiring new skills, new talents, upgraded skills and knowledge, from people who are just coming out of the school system, businesses become prepared to take on the competition. “Look beyond your own backyard. It’s a competitive environment, you’ve got to take on and continue upgrading the skills of your existing workforce.”

Apprentices and trainees can also offer their own skills to a business, Barron adds. “A lot of trainees and apprentices matriculate from university back into an apprenticeship, so they bring additional skills and knowledge to businesses.”

Reaping some of these benefits is Russell Mills, managing director of Burdens Plumbing Supplies. Burdens has hosted 15 retail and administration trainees in the last five years, and during this time the business spread across eight locations. “We wouldn’t have been able to grow the business without having those people there,” says Mills. “Good people are what your business is built on.”

While originally taking on trainees because he was unable to find trained employees, Mills now also appreciates the energy trainees bring into the workplace. “It’s good to have young people around the organisation.”

Despite the costs incurred in taking on trainees, Mills finds they are easily covered by government subsidies, and at times he even finishes with a marginal financial advantage.

Governmental financial incentives total about $4,000 over the course of an apprenticeship or traineeship. This includes an upfront payment on commencement. And under another government initiative, the apprentice or trainee is also eligible to receive a completion payment. Furthermore, on the Australian apprentices or trainees websites, employees can access a wider range of financial incentives, from toolkits to financial completion payments. To find out about more financial incentives, and how you can benefit, look at our list of helpful websites below.

It’s also likely that more new initiatives will soon be offered. “Both sides of politics have discovered the gravity of the skills shortage and have really put a lot of time, effort and resources into working out what they think are the best policies,” says Barron, who is optimistic about what the Rudd Government’s education revolution will do for training. “Within that revolution of education there is also need for a training revolution, and they have promised they will be putting a large policy emphasis on reinvigorating the training and vocation education sector,” he says. “We welcome that, but clearly it’s still early days.”

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Pool Services

Initiatives ease the financial aspect of taking on an apprentice or trainee, but what Mills believes really helps is using group training organisations. In the past Burdens found its trainees by advertising in the local paper, but they now prefer to use MEGT, a provider of apprenticeship, traineeship, education and employment services. “They take out a fair bit of hassle for us,” explains Mills. “They act as an interface between us and the trainee, and that’s helped in a couple of instances to work out whether Burdens suits them or they suit Burdens.”

Directly contacting GTA to find an apprentice or a trainee is another option, says Barron. The GTA network includes approximately 150 organisations across the nation, and together they employ 42,000 apprentices and trainees in every state and territory, giving your business more options. “We have a very large national network, with close ties to most local TAFEs, so businesses are made aware of the opportunities available to them.”

In addition, GTA provides provisions for school-based apprentices and trainees, as well as those who belong to an indigenous community, or are disabled. “So there’s a number of areas where group training organisations work,” says Barron. “It’s a whole sort of menu of services that they provide depending on the area or jurisdiction.”

Yet, as in life, nothing is perfect, and these programs do come with a simple downside: there’s no guarantee the apprentice or trainee will stay with your business after completing their training. “It gets down to the quality of the experience on both sides. If it’s a good experience, history shows there is a chance that apprentice, once becoming a tradesman, will stay with that employer,” says Barron.

“Many employers welcome that because then they can start taking on more apprentices. You want to invest, want to create a more skilled workforce. The last thing you want to see is them walking out the front door after you’ve trained them for four years,” he adds. “Employers have different approaches to making sure they retain the apprentices and tradesmen, some may pay above awards wages. In many cases every effort is made to make sure the apprentice, once qualified as a tradesman, stays.”

Despite every effort being made, at times trainees still leave, says Mills, who has experienced his fair share of let-downs. “Trainees are generally younger people, and they’re finding their feet in the workplace,” he explains. “You risk that the investment you put into them won’t pay back, but quite often it does.”

In the event that a partnership doesn’t work, employers just need to cut their losses and move on, says Mills. “It’s not an emotional thing, it’s just a fact of life. Especially because a lot of them come straight out of school, and they don’t know what to expect in the workforce, and what to expect of an employer, or an employment experience,” he explains. “They can make wrong choices about their career path early on, and we can easily make wrong choices about who is suitable.”

This is not to say tolerance isn’t required. “You’ve got to be a bit patient with them, and a bit patient with your selection,” he says. “On the whole, it’s been a good experience for Burdens. If you get somebody through their training, and train them well, they can be a good employee.”

In a competitive and tight labour market, using apprentices and trainees has become an attractive option. “Every employer, every business, every industry is looking for an advantage, looking for a value-add,” says Barron. “The best way of having that advantage over your competitors, the best way to value-add, is to invest in apprenticeships and traineeships, because it really does skill your workforce, it gives you an edge over your competitors, it allows you to grow your business.”

Intern Option

While apprentices and trainees are one solution to finding the right staff, another is taking on an intern. What’s more, many universities have realised the importance of internships, and easing the transition from study to work. To avoid your newly hired university graduates getting in over their heads, train them while they’re still studying, so they better understand your business and its culture.

“It&rsquo
;s harder to teach intangibles like personal accountability and professionalism but the gap can be filled,” says Stuart Milne, from HR Live, following a study of 1,000 Australian workers. “Many of these skills are best picked up through real world experience as evidenced by the overwhelming 97 percent of the workforce who said practical experience is more valuable to an employer than classroom theory.”

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Having already realised this, the University of Western Sydney is now among the many educational institutions offering an internship unit as part of certain degrees.

The unit ensures students have the necessary skills alongside knowledge, when they enter the workforce, says Asha Chand, senior lecturer and a co-ordinator of UWS’s communication internship unit.

“Coming straight from university, these students are really keen to learn and so moulding them into their own environment is much easier from the employer’s perspective,” says Chand, adding that internships are a good reference point for prospective employers to suss out the individual. “In the 21st century it’s really hard to actually know that this is the person cut out to do the job.”

Another factor that makes the program more appealing to businesses is that the unit is offered in the final year, so students don’t come totally inexperienced. “The bottom line is, we also train our students, we give them hands-on experience,” she explains. “It’s not just about one program or one subject, we encourage our students to go out there, in the real world, and get experience right from the word go.”

And at no cost, other than the time spent showing your intern the ropes, it does ease budget restraints. Also, with a university staff member always in the background to provide any support the student needs, training becomes even easier.

So what’s the best way to find an intern who is the right fit for your business? While the method does depend on each business’ internal policies, the easiest option is contacting universities that offer your industry’s degree and being patched into the relevant department. “I’m happy to talk to any employer and recommend students,” says Chand, adding that other lecturers have the same approach. “That’s how many of our students have been really successful in the real world. Some of them have already secured work because they started out early in their academic life in those environments.”

Fast Facts

*1.68 million students enrolled in the public VET system in 2006.

*397,400 apprentices and trainees were in training.

*87.8 percent of graduates were employed or in further study approximately six months after their training.

*Source NCVER, Australian Vocation Education and Training Statistics, 2006.

Helpful Websites

Australian Apprentices: To learn more about the benefits of apprenticeships and traineeships, or to read about the financial incentives on offer, check out this website.
www.australianapprenticeships.gov.au

Group Training Australia: Find an apprentice or a trainee through GTA, the national body representing 150 group training organisations. www.grouptraining.com.au

MEGT: For education, apprenticeship, traineeship, and employment services, visit www.megt.com.au

National Centre for Vocational Education Research: Check out NCVER’s website for more vocational education and training research and statistics, or subscribe to their newsletter for up-to-date news and information. www.ncver.edu.au

Tools For Your Trade: Reduce the cost of taking on an apprentice even further by taking part in this initiative. Tools For Your Trade provides up to $800 to eligible Australian Apprentices to purchase required tools. www.toolsforyourtrade.com.au

VOCED: To find more information on technical and vocational education and training research visit VOCED, the UNESCO and NCVER international database. www.voced.edu.au

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