A recent study by Noonan and Pilcher of Victoria University claims there is no apprenticeship crisis in Australia. The study, published only last week in “The Conversation” finds that a number of factors contribute to the small decline in the apprentice commencements.

The Noonan and Pilcher study looked at apprenticeships and traineeships and comments that when data is studied; both of these vocational streams are presented together but that the numbers don’t suggest that apprenticeships are in crisis. The term “apprenticeship” can be confusing and this is one reason that traineeship numbers are often combined with apprenticeship numbers. Both streams lead to a job outcome but both streams are in fact different. An apprenticeship is usually for the trade areas such as building and furniture making and cabinet-making. Traineeships usually lead to jobs in the services sector and were created by the government in the 1980’s to provide additional job opportunities.

The reason for the ‘panic’ is comments made by several key individuals and organisations. Bill Shorten said in 2016 that “The number of Australians training for apprenticeships is at its lowest number since 2001.” Assistant minister for vocational education Karen Andrews said recently that apprentice numbers were ‘alarming’ and the ACTU said apprentice numbers had experienced a ‘catastrophic drop’ under the Abbott/Turnbull government. While some of this could be attributed to political points-scoring, the numbers do appear to be dropping and for the trades this is some cause for alarm. The truth is though that apprentice enrolments have been an issue for the furniture trades for as long as we at supplier can remember.

Data from the Noonan/Pilcher study finds that 2016 apprentice enrolments are about the same as they were in 2004 when they started to rise to a high in 2013. Traineeship enrolments on the other hand experienced a sharp rise from 1997 to 2003 where they remained relatively stable for the next nine years. In 2013 traineeships experienced a sharp drop and have continued a downward trend, mainly due to the misuse of incentives resulting in government policy changes. Traineeships still outnumber apprenticeships but the numbers are now very similar.

The situation with traditional trade apprenticeships is complex and a number of factors influence apprenticeship commencements across different occupations. Economic and social factors are blamed for the recent slight decline and this includes ‘negative and low growth in full-time employment’ from 2013 and an ongoing organizational change in the structure of the labour market. The relevance of the apprenticeship training model in some industries has also impacted the numbers and this could be relevant in the furniture trades where more work is done on CNC equipment and less reliance is placed on traditional equipment and manufacturing skills.

While both sides of politics are united in the importance of the apprenticeship system and this is supported by the Unions; it is clear from the study that the numbers suggest the crisis is in fact not as serious as is reported. Some trades have experienced an increase while others a decrease in enrolments. What is important for the furniture trades is that the support still exists. What is less clear is how many apprenticeships will be offered by the furniture industry where industry 4.0 and the ‘Internet of Things’ is already starting to have an impact on the way furniture and cabinetry is produced.