Dr Larissa Bamberry is Senior Lecturer in human resource management in the Charles Sturt University School of Management and Marketing, and Dr Donna Bridges is Lecturer in sociology in the Charles Sturt University School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
COVID-19 has exposed a range of problems for young people seeking to build vocational skills and education in regional Australia, including access to employers, access to training providers, and access to potential support networks and government agencies.
For women seeking to enter the trades in regional Australia, these problems are amplified. Yet, women could be the answer to the skilled trade skills shortage in Australia.
However, this highly gender-segregated industry does require significant cultural change if numbers of women apprentices are to grow.
One of the major problems of the apprenticeship system in the skilled trades is that it has not been investing in the next generation of ‘tradies’.
For 30 years, the skilled trades have behaved like ‘farmers consuming their seeds’. They have been so focused on maximising the utility of skilled workers, that those skilled workers have been unable to develop the next crop of apprentices.
Traditionally in Australia, the major employers of apprentices have been large organisations. These large organisations were situated in the public sector, such as electricity, gas and water suppliers, education and health systems or local government authorities.
Under the pressures of ‘new public management’ and privatisation, maintenance and renovation functions have been outsourced to contractors and sub-contractors.
Contractors and sub-contractors are not focused on taking on apprentices, let alone improving workplace cultures or implementing gender equity initiatives or strategies.
Contractors and sub-contractors, operating as micro businesses, and small and medium businesses are focussed on minimising costs and maximising profits.
This model is not designed to allow for workers who are not already skilled, or for workers who need training and other support. A fully trained worker is a more productive and profitable use of a business’s wages budget.
Apprentices do not represent cheap labour; they are less productive initially than a trained worker and require significant supervision and training input from other skilled workers.
When women are recruited there are concerns that special infrastructure, such as a ‘women’s toilet’, will incur even more costs.
They struggle to access support systems for apprentices from government, training providers and other agencies.
Small and micro businesses are more likely to operate informally and draw on their social connections to employ people they know, or people who know people they know, to select workers from within their broader social networks.
In regional Australia, the social networks of business and employment are amplified in importance. This means that employers take on apprentices from established networks and are more likely to take on young men than young women.
In regional Australia, constrained labour markets mean fewer larger employers, and more socially embedded employment networks. These create significant barriers for women who seek to enter the trades.
Furthermore, apprenticeships in these environments are seen as ‘reserved’ for young men who may become breadwinners in their local communities, and bring in family members to grow the community.
Apprenticeships are also reserved for young men who have fewer options for education, training and work, whether locally or outside the region.
There are social expectations attached to access to apprenticeships, both in terms of employment and training.
Furthermore, many young women either do not consider the skilled trades to be work for women or they fear how they will be viewed or treated if they do take up a trade.
The skilled trades continue to link hands-on training to employment or specifically on-the-job training.
This becomes highly problematic in instances such as the COVID-19 lockdowns, where small and micro employers are struggling to continue employing workers and apprentices, and are certainly not looking to take on new apprentices.
For those already in training there is some flexibility in being able to focus on off-the-job training, but for those who have not commenced their study, there is no capacity to enter training and develop off-the-job skills and knowledge.
The link between employment and training has long been problematic and it is bound to worsen with a downturn in the market.
Poor employment relationships threatening apprentices’ access to training and their ability to take their skills to another employer should be a grave concern to the industry and government.
COVID-19 has exposed these problematic links between employment and training of which women have long been aware.
Perhaps in considering ways to improve access to training and skills and also stimulate regional economic growth post COVID-19, now is the time to reconsider the apprenticeship system for the skilled trades.
Now is the time to build a better system that puts gender equity at the heart of the system.