The future of trade: Where are we headed?

The future of trade: Where are we headed?

A pastry chef apprentice stands piping a coulis onto a plate which holds a tart and a pile of raspberries (apprenticeship)

Trade industries across the country are crying out for apprentices, but with little funding or advertising going into this avenue of education, many school-leavers are disregarding it as an option. Baking Business examines how the decline of interest and investment in trades has led to a deficit of skilled people and whether there’s a way forward for those industries.

For a long time, university has been regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for young people leaving high school. This rules out a lot of trade-related options and is currently reflected in the decline in TAFE enrolment numbers in recent years. The recent Daily Telegraph 2022 Bush Summit in New South Wales revealed TAFE enrolments have plunged by more than 70 per cent in regional centres compared to a decade ago.

“Parents encourage their kids to get university degrees,” says Shane Williams from Skills for Trades.

“They want their kids to do better than what they had.”

However, Shane continues, this lack of people going into trades is leading to a deficit of skilled tradespeople across the board.

“We’re seeing the repercussions now, where it’s hard to find tradespeople in our own country.”

Dean Gibson, experienced pastry chef and teacher at TAFE NSW, echoes this sentiment.

“Our industry is in a lot of trouble. We’ve got nobody. We need to engage not just young people, but all people, to come and join our trade.”

Pastry chef and TAFE NSW teacher Dean Gibson (Image: Fivespice Creative)

This has only been compounded by COVID-19, which saw a lot of apprentices laid off and a lot of industry professionals give up the harder hours involved in trade work and opt for a more regular 9 to 5 lifestyle. Currently, there aren’t enough incentives for people to follow trade pathways.

One of the major problems, Shane muses, is the Federal Government’s lack of involvement in promoting trades as a viable option for school-leavers.

“They do drives for the Armed Forces; they’re pumping money into advertising and creating things to encourage young people to do that. We’re not seeing any of that in the trades.”

According to Tony Smith, Baking Association of Australia (BAA) executive officer, making young people aware of baking as an option is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry these days.

“In some states, we’ve been lucky enough to hold what we call Showcase Days, where we take mentors to the schools with us,” he says.

“The biggest thing is getting into the schools. It doesn’t matter who we are, the schools don’t recognise it as such unless they’re told by the government.”

The BAA holds regular Showcase Days at secondary schools

Tony Smith (right) with apprentice competition winner Stephanie Wehrmann

The lack of apprentices entering the workforce at the moment means that skilled cooks and chefs have no one to pass their skills onto.

Jian Yao from Continental Patisserie believes that the government needs to do more to get people into the industry. “I believe if we don’t pass on our skills, they will be lost forever,” he says. “Our education system is not pumping people into the industry. We’re getting less and less… In some ways, for craftsmanship, we don’t have enough reward in this country. There’s no support whatsoever.”

Industry veteran and former teacher Andre Sandison has told Baking Business in the past that, despite the enormous economic contribution the bakery and pastry industry make in Australia, heavy regulations—while necessary—undermine the quality of the education on offer.

“Unfortunately, what has taken several years to embed as a compliance culture is going to take several more to allow training providers to rebuild their confidence in blending compliance and educational needs,” Andre says.

“The goal should be to emphasise what is being taught and assessed. Educational regulation should not sit upfront in the classroom, but be embedded into policies and procedures via the support of good quality assurance systems.”

This is a problem that has crept into the institutions themselves, Shane Williams believes.

“TAFE’s gone too far down the rabbit hole of worrying about systems. It’s trying too much to push online processes to save time and money,” he says, but he doesn’t think that TAFEs need to be replaced. “TAFE has such an important role, it just needs to refocus and go back to the strength of face-to-face teaching and practical skills.” Shane believes that this is likely to engage young people better and encourage them to pursue careers in the trades.

Furthermore, it is too hard for mentors to take on apprentices. The issue is not that there aren’t enough mentors out there, a lot of industry professionals realise the importance of apprenticeships. Dean Gibson says, “It’s an obligation for tradespeople to pass on skills and knowledge, and we have to respect an apprenticeship.”

But how are businesses supposed to take on apprentices given their own financial battles? Shane Williams says, “It is really hard to take on an apprentice. There are issues with them going to TAFE—that’s one less staff member on an already tight budget.” It is difficult to imagine how businesses will be able to support apprentices when they are already struggling financially.

The Way Forward

The outlook is not entirely bad. The Federal Government recently met to put into practice a new initiative, the Australian Apprenticeships Incentive System (Incentives System), which commenced on 1 July 2022. This Incentives Scheme (which includes the bakery and pastrycook industries as listed Priority Industries) includes wage subsidies for eligible employers. These employers may be eligible for a Priority Wage Subsidy, set at 10 per cent of the apprentice’s wages for the first and second years, up to a maximum of $1,500 per quarter, and 5 per cent of the apprentice’s wages in the third year, up to a maximum of $750 per quarter.

As part of National Skills Week, the Albanese Government pledged $850 million for 465,000 fee-free TAFE place and TAFE infrastructure. This was backed up at the recent Jobs and Skills Summit in September. During the Summit, the Government set aside an additional $1 billion in joint Federal-State funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023.

In a press release, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “My Government is focused on growing our vocational and training sector, delivering 465,000 fee-free TAFE places to help address skills shortages, and upgrading key TAFE infrastructure.”

“Our goal is to build a strong VET sector to help more Australians get secure, well-paying jobs, while providing the skilled workers that business needs to grow our economy.”

Another solution to this problem, Shane Williams believes, lies across the ocean in France. In 1924, seeing that the country was suffering from a dearth of tradespeople, the French Government, along with journalists and industry professionals, started the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MoF), a series of competitions dedicated to rewarding and recognising France’s best apprentices across a wide range of trade industries.

Competitor in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France

The collaboration of industry and government that MoF represents led to an increase in people moving into trades in France, a turn of events that Shane believes could be replicated in Australia with some help from the Federal Government. “The government needs to step up and give reward. At the moment, in Australia, we don’t get rewarded for anything in trade, except our own businesses.” This, he believes, will also entice people into working in the trade sector.

Competitors in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France

Jian Yao has faith in the people involved in the sector. “We’re a group of passionate, crazy people who keep this going. We have enough talent, but we do need that connection with the world to make it known that we are no different from countries in Europe,” he says. With a program like MoF that recognises brilliance in trade industries, Jian believes that the Australian baking industry can reach the likes of France.

All that’s missing now is a little encouragement from the government.

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