Evolution of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia: an unfinished history

By Brian Knight Research report 20 February 2012 ISBN 978 1 921955 71 6


This occasional paper traces the evolution of Australia's apprenticeship system from European settlement in 1788 to the present day. It complements an earlier NCVER paper by Ray (2001), which concentrated on the second half of the 20th century. The present paper develops a number of major themes. The system has evolved over time but not in fundamental ways. Traditional apprenticeships are strongly supported by employers, unions and the community; they have tolerated few major changes to the system. Most change has occurred since the introduction of traineeships in 1985 and the payment of government incentives to employers from the mid-1990s. This evolution has brought the system to a crossroads, with major issues still to be addressed. It is very much an unfinished history.


About the research

This paper traces the evolution of Australia’s apprenticeship and traineeship system since permanent European settlement in 1788. The system was imported from Great Britain; it has evolved and diverged in some areas but retains many of the features of the British model. Most major changes have occurred in the last 25 years.

The apprenticeship model — a combination of paid employment, on-the-job and institutional training — has always had particular appeal for meeting intergenerational skills transfer: it provides employers with a source of low-cost labour, the apprentice with paid employment, and an opportunity for government to subsidise employment for those needing help to establish themselves in the labour market. Indeed, the community, employees, unions, employers and government have come to regard apprenticeships as the system for training in the trades and have tolerated few alterations to the system, beyond those resulting from shifts in the occupational and industry mix in the Australian economy and changes in secondary schooling arrangements.

The first important reform to apprenticeships occurred in 1985 with the introduction of traineeships, which extended the model to a much wider range of occupations, generally at lower qualification levels. The second was in the mid-1990s when the Australian Government began paying incentives on a large scale to employers to help offset the costs of apprenticeships and traineeships and to encourage more commencements. This had a spectacular impact on traineeship numbers but much less effect on trades apprenticeships. Other significant changes were introduced in 1998; these allowed school students, existing workers and part-time workers to undertake apprenticeships and traineeships.

In short, since 1985 the system has moved from one dominated by young males undertaking apprenticeships in the trades to one that provides apprenticeships and traineeships to people of all ages and both sexes, and in a much wider range of occupations.

Key messages

  • The apprentice and trainee system needs to address some major issues. Much of the training is at low qualification levels with little or no economic return. And it can be argued that it is neglecting the general education needs of young people

  • The system needs greater capacity to adapt and respond quickly to changing labour market demands. Australia might look to the experience of countries that use an institutional training model for trade training, which may be much easier to ramp up quickly.

  • By any standards the cost of Australia’s current system places a hefty burden on the public purse, estimated at $2.9 billion in 2008—09.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER




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