In the decades before the recent great boom in university enrolments, going into a trade was a very acceptable career path for many young Australian men.
And in those days, it was mostly men. Over the years, millions of Australians would have been indentured to their particular trades, coming out the other end four or five years later as a “journeyman”, and often encouraged to find another employer straight away so as to broaden their skills.
The wage of the tradesman – particularly the fitter and turner – was used by our then centralised wage fixing system for years on end to help set wages and conditions for the rest of the workforce.
Things have changed dramatically since then, but despite the national aspiration toward university education, there are still plenty of positions around for apprentices – jobs that can go on to be mentally rewarding and financially lucrative, especially if the person then strikes out on their own, as many builders, carpenters and plumbers are wont to do.
Social commentators sometimes look askance at the Hunter for having comparatively low rates of university education, but if young school leavers can find a viable career path through an apprenticeship – or, indeed, through the broader vocational education and training (or VET) sector – then the modest university enrolment rate need not be read as a social impediment.
Unfortunately, vocational training has had its reputation somewhat battered in recent years, after state and federal governments opened the sector to a host of shonky operators by ill-advisedly opening the funding floodgates.
But this should not be allowed to tarnish the concept of apprenticeships and traineeships in general. Even after the automation of production and the shifting offshore of much of our manufacturing, Australian industry still needs – and will always need – young people to maintain and hopefully build on its trades base.
Despite this need, the Hunter Valley Training Company and other similar organisations say they are having trouble filling about a third of their vacancies across a range of trades and skills. Given the fees that are charged today for tertiary education, it is perhaps surprising that more young people are not opting for a work path that offers a steady wage from the very start.
After all, those who succeed at trade level can always go on to do further study.