The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has hit back at claims that migrant labour is responsible for a marked decline in the number of apprentices.
The ACTU last week hit out at the 457 visa system, saying it was being exploited by employers and causing Australian workers to be unfairly relegated to the back of job queues.
Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research show that there were 392,200 apprentices and trainees in training as at December 31 2013 – a decrease of nearly 13 per cent on the previous year.
The number of people who commenced apprenticeships in the 12 months ending at December 31 2013 was 244,700 – a decrease of nearly 26 per cent on the previous year.
ACCI chief executive Kate Carnell is deeply alarmed by the trend, but denies the decrease is a direct result of employers opting for overseas workers on 457 visas.
“The apprenticeship commencements have been falling for several years largely because of serious cutbacks to incentive and support programs by successive Labor governments,” she said. “With more and more young people not involved in either full-time work or full-time training we are facing what could become an inter-generational problem.
“But let’s get it right, the apprenticeship numbers are not falling because more 457 visas are being issued. In the majority of cases 457 visas are used to fill jobs where there are genuine skills shortages and not enough qualified Australians to fill them. They are also often used for jobs in locations local people don’t want to relocate for.”
ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver warned last week that nurse graduates, carpenters, cooks, engineers, welders, fitters and motor mechanics were being left out in the cold while employers turned to 457 visa workers, exacerbating youth unemployment.
“When you have hundreds of thousands of local workers job-searching in ‘skill-shortage areas’ you have to question whether the 457 visa program is achieving its ultimate aim or if it’s being abused,” he said.
Construction Assistant National Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, Brad Parker, has also claimed that big business is “routinely not investing in training and apprenticeships and looking to 457 visa workers as a way to fill job vacancies”.
Over 37,000 foreign managers, professional and tradespeople have been taken-up by employers in the current financial year despite over 180,000 unemployed Australians falling into those categories.
The Australian Industry Group’s director of Education and Training, Megan Lilly, told Dynamic Business that it was “misleading” to link 457 visa workers to the decline in apprentices.
“457 visa holders are already skilled and experienced in a particular occupation,” she said. “It’s not something that employers would do without exploring other options first of all.
“I think the 457 visa is an important tool in alleviating immediate and specific skill shortages. It is widely acknowledged, including by AiGroup, that training Australians through apprenticeships and other forms of training to undertake jobs broadly is the number one priority.”