Pre-apprenticeships in three key trades

By Tom Dumbrell, Erica Smith Research report 2 October 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 50 8 print; 978 1 921170 56 0 web


This report looks at whether pre-apprenticeships increase the potential supply of tradespeople, with a special focus on electrotechnology, automotive and engineering students. It found that pre-apprenticeships have been used in Australia for many years and are widely regarded as a valuable strategy for increasing the supply and quality of potential apprentices. Pre-apprenticeships are favoured by employers because they weed out unsuitable candidates and improve retention, while apprentices see them as a useful way of gaining experience in the trade.


About the research

This study examines the characteristics of pre-apprenticeships in Australia and how they might contribute to addressing shortages of skills in some of the key trades. Pre-apprenticeships are courses which provide initial training in a particular industry or occupation. If completed successfully, the courses can assist participants in obtaining an apprenticeship. The study found that pre-apprenticeships have been used in Australia and elsewhere for many years and are widely regarded as a valuable strategy for increasing the supply and quality of potential apprentices.

  • Employers are in favour of pre-apprenticeships; they see them as weeding out unsuitable candidates. Hence, pre-apprenticeships are likely to improve retention.
  • Prospective apprentices like them. They see them as a useful way into an apprenticeship and are positive about the experience.
  • Those who undertake pre-apprenticeships are more engaged with the occupation and are more likely to have plans for higher-level training after they complete their apprenticeships.
  • Pre-apprenticeships should not be seen as getting students ‘work ready’; they are more about engagement with the trade.

Executive summary

Shortages of skilled trade-level workers in Australia are currently widespread. Pre-apprenticeships represent one strategy that has been used in Australia and other countries for many years to augment the supply of potential tradespeople. Pre-apprenticeships are courses which provide initial training in a particular industry or occupation. If completed successfully, the courses can assist participants in obtaining an apprenticeship. The arguments in favour of this approach have been twofold. One, a supply-side argument, is that pre-apprenticeships more effectively prepare young people for specific industries—by exposing them to the expectations of workplaces employing apprentices. Moreover, pre-apprenticeships can often provide additional educational preparation for apprenticeship study. This strategy therefore promotes the position that pre-apprenticeships augment the total supply of applicants suitable for selection as apprentices.

The other is a demand-side argument that pre-apprenticeships can have an effect on the overall demand for apprentices, and thus eventually the number of tradespersons, by increasing employers’ confidence in employing apprentices. This argument often assumes, based on studies of employer attitudes, that many applicants for apprenticeships are unsuitable, their having not been adequately prepared for the workplace by their schooling. Pre-apprenticeships therefore, by better matching the attributes of potential apprentices to the needs of employers, can increase the number of apprenticeship positions employers are willing to offer.

This study aims to determine whether pre-apprenticeships increase the potential supply, and retention and completion rates, of tradespersons, focusing specifically on electro-technology, automotive and engineering students. The study has employed a range of approaches, including analysing available national statistical data; reviewing the limited literature on pre-apprenticeships; interviewing key organisations and providers of pre-apprenticeship training; and surveying employers, pre-apprenticeship students and current apprentices. Demand-side issues have also been explored, mainly through consultations with a range of employers.

The research cannot at this stage supply a definitive answer to the question of whether preapprenticeships enhance retention and completion rates in apprenticeships, and subsequent transition into related trades. Nevertheless, the study has achieved a number of goals in attempting to address this and related questions, including gaining a clearer picture of students undertaking pre-apprenticeship courses. Because the study design did not incorporate a lengthy time span, it has not been possible to track individuals from a pre-apprenticeship or other sources, through an apprenticeship, and finally into post-apprenticeship destinations.

An early part of the study involved scrutinising national training data to identify courses offered for the period 2000–04 that are likely to meet the definition of pre-apprenticeship courses. When these were identified, data were obtained from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) on the characteristics of students enrolled in these courses. This analysis revealed that about three-quarters of pre-apprenticeship students were males aged under 25, were disproportionately (compared with the general population) from non-capital city areas and were disproportionately Indigenous people. Most were enrolled in courses that were usually longer than 400 hours. About one-third of the students had Year 10 education as their highest level, compared with about 40% with higher levels. Over the 2000–04 period there was an increasing proportion of students with Year 9 or lower school levels, suggesting that pre-apprenticeship courses were increasingly being used as equity programs for early school leavers. It should be stressed that there is no national identifier for pre-apprenticeship courses, and hence no definitive count of such courses is possible from the database alone. Later analysis indicated that our count of presumed pre-apprenticeship courses is likely to be very conservative, although the characteristics identified are believed to be reasonably representative of pre-apprenticeship students.

A series of 19 interviews with state training agencies, peak bodies and training providers across four states revealed a common understanding of the role of pre-apprenticeship courses as being to prepare students for specific apprenticeships. However, there was inconsistency in the terminology, with the term ‘pre-vocational’ often being used rather than ‘pre-apprenticeship’. There was also no consistency in the granting of credit or time off for apprentices who had completed pre-apprenticeships. There was, however, clear evidence of renewed interest in the use of pre-apprenticeships as a strategy for addressing emerging trade skill shortages, although a constant tension was apparent between those who saw pre-apprenticeships as a skill-formation strategy and those who regarded them as a type of labour market program aimed at weaker and disadvantaged students.

The later stages of the study involved surveying apprentices, their employers and pre-apprentices. Apprentices were surveyed by approaching a sample of employers and requesting that they distribute questionnaires to their apprentices and return them to the researchers. Pre-apprentice students were surveyed via their training provider. Employers of apprentices were interviewed to gain their views on the value of pre-apprenticeships; the providers of training to pre-apprentices were also interviewed.

The employers participating in this survey were generally in favour of pre-apprenticeships, with four of the 12 regarding their use as essential in recruiting apprentices, two regarding them as important, and five, as useful. Most saw the benefit of pre-apprenticeships as weeding out unsuitable candidates for apprenticeships, and three employers said that pre-apprenticeships improved retention and completion rates in apprenticeship. None saw any disadvantages in pre-apprenticeships.

A total of 255 questionnaires were returned from apprentices employed by 14 enterprises, which between them employed about 1600 apprentices nationally. The following are the main findings from these data.

  • 85% of apprentices said they intended to do further study related to their apprenticeship after finishing and those who had done a pre-apprenticeship were significantly more likely to be planning further study than those who had not, suggesting a stronger attachment to the occupation and greater prospects of retention.
  • 98% of apprentices who undertook a pre-apprenticeship agreed or strongly agreed that they had learnt a lot in their course.
  • 93% agreed or strongly agreed that they had enjoyed their pre-apprenticeship.
  • From matching the survey data with NCVER records on contracts of training, those who had done a pre-apprenticeship were younger than those who had not but were more likely to have completed Year 12.

Data gathered through questionnaires from 106 pre-apprenticeship students in South Australia and Victoria found similarly high levels of support for their course, with over 90% agreeing or strongly agreeing that they were learning a lot in their course.

The analysis of data from the survey and case studies of pre-apprenticeship students dispelled one common notion about pre-apprenticeships—that they provided employability skills. Almost all of these students had worked previously, about a quarter in full-time work, and hence they were unlikely to be lacking in basic employability skills. On the other hand, these students were mainly seeking to enter a different industry sector and their pre-apprenticeship course thus needed to focus on more industry-specific employability requirements. About two-thirds of these students were doing the course either to get into an apprenticeship or because they had missed out on an apprenticeship and saw this option as the next best. About three-quarters of these students also believed that their course was assisting them to achieve their career goals. The career objective of 83% of these students was either to find an apprenticeship or to start an apprenticeship they had already organised. This is a high rate of conversion and a finding supportive of the value of preapprenticeships as a pathway into apprenticeships.

In summary, the study provides some evidence that pre-apprenticeship courses facilitate entry into related apprenticeships. Other studies of completion rates in apprenticeships identify having realistic expectations about workplaces and a commitment to a career path as important contributors to retention and completion. This study found that apprentices who had done a pre-apprenticeship were more likely to be planning further study related to their trade than those who had not undertaken such a course. Comments from training providers and from surveyed apprentices support the view that pre-apprenticeship courses develop learning-to-learn skills, which have been identified as critical in retention of apprentices.


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