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Apprentice electricians underpaid and undervalued: research

08 March, 2012

Despite Australia's critical shortage of skilled workers, many trade apprentices are living on a wage that falls below the poverty line and is barely higher than the unemployment benefit, according to research from the University of Sydney's Workplace Research Centre (WRC).

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has commissioned researchers from the WRC to prepare a report on the work, wages and living standards of electrical apprentices as part of Fair Work Australia's review of modern awards.

Electrical trades are one of Australia's key skills shortages but only about 60 per cent of people who commence training will complete it, due in part to the deteriorating financial position of apprenticeships.

"Back in the 1950s the typical apprentice was around 15 years of age and lived with their parents. Historically, it was thought that apprentices should be paid as a percentage of a qualified tradesperson's wage to compensate for their lower productivity and the time needed for on the job training," Hanna Schutz, a Research Analyst from the Workplace Research Centre, said.

"Today's modern apprentice electrician has most likely completed high school with a background in mathematics and sciences, and is at least 18 years old. More than a quarter of those commencing training in a trade are 25 or older. Apprentices are now more likely to be adults with families of their own, rather than dependent children.

The first year wage of as little as $225 per week means that apprentices are dependent on their parents' generosity to achieve even an austere standard of living. For instance, they cannot typically afford to own or run a car, can only afford generic brands, and must stay healthy and have good teeth. Ill health or an unexpectedly large bill is likely to tip anyone living at this low cost standard into debt.

School leavers who engage directly in paid work and are paid a junior wage will typically earn $40 to $70 more than a first year apprentice. According to the WRC, this is a key factor in the skills shortage, wherein 12.5 percent of job vacancies for electricians remain unfilled in the Sydney area.

"Beginning an apprenticeship is not only initially much less attractive than other pathways, but completing training requires apprentices to endure sustained period of relative deprivation before rewards become comparable with those of their peers," Professor John Buchanan, Director of the WRC and a co-author of the report said.

"Our research shows that relative earnings and lower standard of living are likely to lead to continuing difficulties in recruiting apprentices and to poor rates of completion."

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Chuck Solid | Sunday, March 18, 2012, 1:47 PM
A somewhat "disingenous" article to say the least. According to the Fair Work website, adult age apprentices receive 70% of the normal adult rate, rising in increments to 90% in the forth year. For a qualified electrician going into their own business, "the sky is the limit" as far as earnings go. Anyone who has needed the services of an electrician recently can attest to that. The concept behind apprenticeship pay rates is simple. Because a lot of skills are required, (which supposedly can't be learned in a shorter time frame), the employer does not receive the same "value" from an apprentice as they would from a fully indentured tradesperson. It obviously has not dawned on a lot of people, including the Academics, that the concept of an apprenticeship is that both the apprentice and the employer are making a sacrifice for the "prize" at the end. More often than not though, if the apprentice is any good, the employer will be the one who loses out, because the newly indentured "sparkie" will look around for the highest bidder, or move into private practice. The unfortunate thing here is that "Rational discussion" and "Academics/Trade Unions" are mutually exclusive terms, so commonsense will never prevail. I have first-hand knowledge of a newly qualified electrician, (just "out of his time"), who, after several visits to clients premises, spent almost 9 hours on a job that should have taken no more than 2 or 3 hours at best, and still got it wrong ! (He also had an "assistant" with him at all times). The net result was that yet another electrician with "more experience" is yet to come back and rectify the situation. Chuck Solide
IndustrySearch Chris | Monday, March 19, 2012, 10:38 AM
Hi Chuck, thanks your interesting thoughts. I agree that a major concern with any apprentice scheme is and always has been holding on to the talent. Why as an employer would I invest my time and resources in training someone who once qualified is going to leave me and give the benefit of my training free to my competitor. However I just don't see any way to legislate against this, it's how a free market must work, and is no different whatever industry or field you work in - competitors will always try and poach your best talent. I am of course aware of non-compete clauses in some contracts, preventing someone from working for a competitor for a pre-determined period of time after ceasing work for a company, but have always been led to believe this would never stand up if challenged in law because of restraint of trade concerns. Interested to know how you would propose to improve the situation. Thanks Chris
archibald | Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 10:45 AM
This should be an interesting debate to watch I hope some out of the box thinkers contribute to it. I think it comes down to the old 'responsibilities and priveledges' question. Maybe we often don't let the potential (youth) 'grow up' in our minds so who would blame them for looking elsewhere for occupation when all the staff here know all their past mistakes?
Tony Gilbert | Sunday, April 1, 2012, 11:19 PM
Since when was an employer not allowed to pay an apprentice more than the award. My most costly staff are my lowest paid. My metal fabrication staff earning 30% more than the lowest paid are between 2 and 3 times more profitable. They give more output,greater reliability and all with very much less supervision. We do have apprentices, both adult( with wives and family) and school leavers. We pay all according to their contribution/usefulness/profitability, and of course we pay with a view to retaining their services. Surely the whole concept of a centralised award system ( how presumptious !) must be designed as only a base, and it must be a subsistense base , not a comfortable one if there is to be any motivational value. The concept of 'entitlements' above bare subsistence, which both trade unions and Centrelink seem to espouse must be replanned to be 'reward for effort', and given only if that effort is present.