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Digging deeper

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Mentoring programs have supported thousands of apprentices in their early years, and following their conclusion, HIA reveals insights about why many are failing to complete their trade training.

Brenton Gardner

HIA Chief Executive – Business Innovation

If you’ve employed apprentices or know of others in the building industry who have, you may have formed the impression that young people today are hard work – rather than being the hard worker. 

For every story about a bright and talented youth with a promising future, there’s one about an apprentice who lacks initiative, has a poor attitude or struggles to move forward in their learning. These anecdotes are somewhat underscored by the statistics – more than 50 per cent give up on their training in their first two years. This tells its own story about how challenging young people find their apprenticeship. 

With poor completion rates, the future of a skilled Australian building industry is constantly in jeopardy. That’s why the Australian Government has committed in recent years to funding several apprentice mentoring programs. 

Mentoring young minds

HIA was first selected as a specialist provider to offer mentorship services from 2012 to 2015, with more than 2000 building trade apprentices and their employers supported at six-week intervals. Following this, throughout 2018 and 2019, HIA was funded again to place mentors at TAFE campuses across several states. The program specifically supported first- and second-year apprentices, with 3773 apprentices in total provided with an average of six hours of mentoring.

After these highly successful and large-scale national apprentice mentoring programs, HIA documented its findings. 

The two programs first and foremost resulted in higher than average retention and completion rates. Without HIA mentoring, many apprentices would have switched industries or joined the unemployment ranks.

The findings showed HIA mentors were able to help thousands of young people deal with a vast array of personal and professional issues, ranging from pay disputes and bullying to serious mental health concerns, including, alarmingly, suicide ideation. A selection of ‘discussion starter’ topics was provided to apprentices, such as communication, career pathways, employment, health and wellbeing, skill development and work safety. 

Of these, employment (4537) and health and wellbeing (3980) were the key topics apprentices wished to discuss, followed by skill development (2820). Findings showed the specific habits or issues hindering apprentices from completing their trade training.

HIA mentors were able to help with advice on post-apprenticeship training options

Flaws and all

Phones and social media: Entrenched mobile phone habits by young people has become a real workforce problem. Frequent use during work hours results in employer angst due to loss of productivity, loss of concentration, and in some instances, causing safety risks to the apprentice and their colleagues.

Drugs and alcohol: Mentoring conversations highlighted the popularity of recreational drug taking, including hard drugs, with many apprentices disinterested in seeking help and advice.

Work worries

Pay and conditions: More than 1800 apprentices raised pay and work condition issues. The prevalence of underpayment, not being issued with payslips, non-payment of superannuation contributions, not being reimbursed for RTO/TAFE fees, and non-payment of travel and/or overtime, is most concerning, and an extremely disappointing reflection on a portion of the building industry. (It should be noted that HIA Apprentices meet all employment requirements. All pay issues reported related to directly indentured employers.)

Unsafe work environments: Many apprentices also revealed being exposed to unsafe work sites. Issues included working from heights, untagged electrical equipment, lack of supervision and unsafe equipment. 

Bullying and harassment: One of the pressing issues revealed by apprentices related to workplace bullying and harassment. The pressure exerted upon many young workers was often unreasonable and caused immense stress, with many disinclined to take a stance on bullying for fear of losing their jobs. 

TAFE/RTO attendance: There were also serious reports of many instances where employers did not allow their apprentices to attend their TAFE or RTO to undertake their studies, putting them at risk of falling behind in their learning.

Life lows

Financial stress: Due to the apprentice wage structure and the cost of living in certain locations, many young people are under financial stress. They often have low levels of financial management capability as well. The need for financial and budgeting advice was common, and well received. 

Nutrition and health: Due to early starts many apprentices skip breakfast, and rely on fast food/caffeine/sugar-based diets, suffer from exhaustion, have poor sleep or lack exercise. The need for better health and wellbeing education was apparent.

Mental health: Significant numbers of apprentices revealed mental health issues. Many struggle to cope with their job and other life pressures. A sad result in some cases was suicide. HIA mentors also acted as a confidante, connected apprentices with professional support and assisted in managing the impact of a suicide in apprentice’s personal networks. 

HIA supports and has a close working relationship with Beyond Blue.

HIA has been valuable in revealing common areas of concern so that current and future employers can better understand how to assist their youngest workers transition into the industry

The value of mentoring

Communication: Many young workers struggle to deal with conflict in their work environment, with generational differences often causing issues. HIA mentors were able to provide much needed guidance, with apprentices benefiting from advice and a framework to navigate their supervisors’ managerial styles. 

Education: A troubling discovery is that too many apprentices today have insufficient literacy and numeracy skills to enable them to complete their studies. HIA partnered with the University of New England to assist these apprentices with the acclaimed Quicksmart program. 

Support services: Difficulty transitioning from school to an apprenticeship is common for many youth, and while HIA’s mentoring was able to assist during the funded period, we discovered a lack of understanding of other ongoing government support services available. 

Career pathways: Inadequate understanding of the job opportunities that exist within the building industry meant many apprentices lacked motivation. HIA mentors were able to help with horizon aspirations, career information and advice on post-apprenticeship training options. Mentors were also often required to assist apprentices with goal setting in both career and life.

Long-term change 

The results from HIA’s apprentice mentoring programs have been astounding, with thousands of Australian apprentices supported to complete their apprenticeships and traineeships. The experience has also been valuable in revealing common areas of concern so that current and future employers can better understand how to assist their youngest workers transition into the industry.

It is unfortunate, however, that these mentoring programs are funded for set periods, then shut down, leaving thousands of young apprentices without this valuable and beneficial service. HIA is hopeful that it will one day be funded to provide an ongoing mentoring service to continue supporting apprentices and the broader industry.