Traditional trade apprenticeships: learnings from the field

By Josie Misko, Bridget Wibrow Research report 12 March 2020 978 1 925717 44 0


This report draws from in-depth interviews and focus groups with employers, trainers, apprentices and government officials about what works, what does not work and needs improvement.  It finds that the combination of off-and-on-the job training continues to be provide a suitable approach for the training of apprentices in the traditional trades. There are some challenges in ensuring this combination works as best it can.


About the research

A companion to Traditional trade apprenticeships: training activity, employer incentives and international practice by Josie Misko, this report collates qualitative material from in-depth interviews and focus groups with employers, trainers, apprentices and relevant government officials describing what is effective, what is not, and what needs improvement in apprenticeship training.

Our research finds that the current combination of off- and on-the-job training is, on the whole, working effectively and should continue to play a key role in apprenticeship training for the traditional trades. Both forms of training are required if apprentices are to develop the technical skills, underpinning knowledge, attributes and behaviours required for their trades. Nevertheless, our research identified a number of challenges in ensuring that this combination continues to operate well. Recommendations for improvement were offered, of which many were similar or the same, while other issues were less common, although all aimed at ensuring that the system works effectively and efficiently for all involved.

Key messages

  • There was strong support among employers, training providers, apprentices and apprenticeship regulators for maintaining the current elements of apprenticeship training for the traditional trades, these include a formal training contract and the combination of on- and off-the-job training. Where suggestions for improvement were made, they were more concerned with making slight adjustments to the current approaches rather than fundamental shifts.
  • Apprentices sometimes felt challenged by the expectations of the workplace, managing their release for off-the-job training at appropriate times, understanding the complex theory components of their courses, and sustaining interpersonal interactions with superiors and co-workers.
  • The appropriate scheduling of off-the-job training (especially block training), in consultation with employers, has the potential to ensure that employers can both fulfil their training contract obligations to release apprentices for training and keep apprentices engaged in productive work during busy periods. In terms of outdoor trades, the ability of the training provider to be flexible when scheduling off-the-job training at times when the weather is unsuitable is considered critical.
  • In view of the increasing specialisations in some industries, it was recognised that it is becoming more difficult to align the learning the apprentice is undertaking off the job with tasks being done on the job. Where apprentices are exposed to substantial specialisation in the workplace, there is a view among some employers that training providers should focus on the skills not regularly practised in the workplace to allow the apprentice to spend more time learning the skills of the broader trade.
  • Stakeholders felt that modernising training package content could assist with the removal of the units of competency that deal with the equipment, tools and technology no longer in use in the workplace.
  • Collaborations between training providers and employers with access to modern technology were also considered to be useful in keeping apprentices up-to-date with current developments.
  • Although an issue affecting only a few employers, national companies commented that, due to the differing training contract requirements applying in each jurisdiction, it was difficult to move their apprentices around the country.
  • Training providers indicated that compliance with VET regulatory frameworks and standards at national and state and territory levels continues to place high administrative burdens on trainers and their managers, largely because they saw this compliance as additional to their core teaching and training responsibilities.
  • Engaging the apprentice in concentrated periods of up-front training, followed by periods of workplace training, is an option suggested by some, although whether this should occur as part of the apprenticeship itself or prior to the apprenticeship commencing was not specified. Either way, there are likely to be implications for competency-based wage progression.

Simon Walker
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

By investigating the experience of those who participate directly in the Australian apprenticeship system, including employers, trainers, apprentices and officials from agencies that regulate apprenticeships, this report examines the operation of the system and its use by traditional trades apprentices.1

This is a companion volume to the publication Traditional trade apprenticeships: training activity, employer incentives and international practices (Misko 2020). Representing the first phase of a larger study on traditional apprenticeships, the earlier volume reported on commencements, rates of completion and attrition, and employer incentives for taking on apprentices for the years 2002 to 2018, as well as offering some insights for the Australian apprenticeship system gained from research on similar systems overseas. A third report, to supplement the findings of both publications, will analyse relevant data from the national 2019 Apprentice and Trainee Destination and Experiences Survey.2

The report for the second phase of this study collates material from in-depth interviews and focus groups with employers, trainers, apprentices and relevant government officials about what is effective in apprenticeship training, what is not, and what needs improvement, with three states selected to enable a closer scrutiny of the system: South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. Apprentice carpenters and joiners, chefs and welders in South Australia participated in face-to-face focus groups, as did apprenticeship regulators from that state.

In investigating what is and is not working effectively for the key players in traditional apprenticeships, we find that a recurring theme emerges. There is general satisfaction with the concept of apprenticeships as entry-level pathways that assist school leavers to make the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, and subsequently to become a fully qualified tradesperson. Apprenticeships also provide existing workers (especially those with no prior qualifications) with opportunities for improving their work prospects in their trade and in the companies for which they work.

Engaging with apprenticeships, processes and regulations

Employers mainly engage with apprenticeships because of a strong motivation to give back to their industries and do this by providing opportunities for young people to acquire a trade; however, the cost-effectiveness of having apprentices in the workplace is also an important consideration. Trainers are motivated by a desire to pass on their skills and knowledge, while potential apprentices aspire to learn a trade in an occupational area that has interested them or for which they have shown special skills and aptitudes. All three groups report receiving rewards that are both psychological and social in nature, as well as those that relate to actual job and training outcomes.

Employers use many different approaches to recruiting apprentices, such as networks, advertisements and walk-ins by would-be apprentices. When it comes to selection, a passion for the trade, demonstrated by either hobbies or an awareness of the trade, is highly sought after. Individuals who can demonstrate signs of commitment, such as by belonging to a sporting club or undertaking part-time work, are also highly regarded. Employers also seek individuals with practical hands-on skills, mechanical aptitude and good literacy and numeracy skills. Trainers also suggest that completing pre-vocational training or ‘try a trade’ courses stand individuals in good stead compared with those who do not, as they have a greater understanding of the trade and the requirements of an apprenticeship. Employers often report that apprenticeships are most successful when they know the apprentice through their networks or have experience of how they perform in the workplace in work trials and work experience.

Generally speaking, most employers do not report difficulties when following procedures for signing up apprentices with training contracts, often relying on the services of the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network3 (AASN) providers, whom they generally found to be very supportive. However, some difficulties are reported in finding relevant information when navigating Commonwealth Government websites. Employers suggested the establishment of a ‘one stop shop’ for dispensing apprenticeship information, also recommending that AASN representatives visit businesses to inform them of the incentives available to them and their obligations as employers. Incentives for training apprentices are felt to be adequate by some of the respondents in this study, but it was also noted that the value of the base or standard incentive has declined in real terms since 2012.

Trainers across the different trade areas feel over-burdened by the amount of paperwork required to ensure they meet all the requirements of the VET Quality Framework4 (VQF). The majority of trainers feel that this takes them away from their core teaching roles.

Learning via off-the-job and on-the job training

Employers, training providers, apprentices and apprenticeship regulators5 agree that a combination of on- and off-the job training is required for developing the trade skills and knowledge of apprentices. Nevertheless, despite the general agreement on the need to preserve this structure, a number of challenges were also identified:

  • For employers, these challenges are generally associated with the availability and scheduling of off-the-job training at times when they find it difficult to release their apprentices (often during busy periods, when they stand to make most of their income). There is also debate about whether it is better for apprentices to attend block release or day release, and how much learning normally undertaken at the workplace should be done by the training provider.
  • The challenges for apprentices relate to a range of issues, such as stressful work environments, long work hours, low wages, and interpersonal issues (including with bosses), and the difficulties some experience with learning the theory and technical aspects of their trade.
  • The main challenges for training providers relate to units in the training packages that require them to teach skills that are no longer used in the workplace and the repetitiveness of content in units within the same qualification. In addition, they are concerned about teaching aspects of technologies that are out of date compared with the workplace situation.
  • The key challenge for apprenticeship regulators is ensuring that employers, apprentices and training providers understand their roles in the training contract; that employers recognise the requirement to be good role models and provide effective supervision; and that apprentices understand how to behave appropriately in the workplace, including the need to follow instructions and meet other employer expectations.

Keeping up with technological change

Keeping up with the advancing technologies in industry is largely viewed as the joint responsibility of the employer, training provider and apprentice.

The employer is more likely than the training provider to have access to the modern equipment and tools, thus providing the students with practical experience. However, trainers are also expected to maintain their industry currency and teach apprentices contemporary practices. For their part, apprentices are expected to ask questions or undertake their own learning. As far as trainers are concerned, the main approaches to keeping up with technological change in the workplace involve activities such as training seminars with manufacturers, suppliers and industry experts; membership of industry associations; professional development, such as attending workshops and reading newsletters; and completing online training modules, available from manufacturers.

Suggestions for improvement

Despite all study participants believing that the system needed no fundamental overhaul, they made a number of suggestions for its improvement, including:

  • raising the standard and currency of the facilities and equipment available to training providers
  • modernising the content of units of competency, by replacing outdated elements to match current practice
  • sequencing training to avoid the duplication of content across units and requiring certain units to be completed before others are begun
  • front-loading apprenticeships with theory in the first year, while focusing more on practical workplace training in subsequent years
  • expanding training programs and options to include courses in conflict management and negotiation, and assertiveness training skills
  • increasing the availability of dual-trade apprenticeships in industries where there are commonalities across occupations in the content and application of training
  • reviewing the intervals at which employers are eligible for incentives to enable a fair share of incentive payments to all employers involved in the apprenticeship system
  • raising the wages of apprentices
  • removing the availability of loans for apprentices, mainly because employers believe that apprentices lack understanding of the difficulties of starting work with a debt that needs to be repaid
  • increasing the promotion of trade pathways as credible career options and equal to other academic pathways
  • reviewing regulatory requirements to reduce the compliance and regulatory burden for trainers and their managers
  • simplifying the process of training package updates and increasing the involvement of training providers on industry reference committees or their equivalents
  • raising the level of national consistency in apprenticeship training, by standardising training contract requirements as well as standardising resources for assessment and compliance across jurisdictions.

1 We define eight groups of traditional trades: building; electrotechnology and telecommunications; engineering; food trades; motor mechanic, repairer and vehicle builder trades; other traditional trades; precision trades; and skilled animal and horticultural workers.

2 This focuses on apprentices and trainees across the nation who completed, cancelled or withdrew from their contract of training in 2018. It aimed to collect information from over 6250 apprentices who completed their contracts and 6250 who cancelled or withdrew from their contracts of training.

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5 These apprenticeship regulators are government officers from the Department for Innovation and Skills in South Australia. Their role is to approve and register employers prior to their taking on an apprentice, as well as ensuring and monitoring the implementation of the training contract.


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