As apprentice numbers tumble across Australia, Tony Abbott’s trade union royal commission is taking aim at successful skills programs. It will be interesting to see if its recommendations take account of industry needs.
Brisbane’s RNA convention centre hosts some flash gigs but not many generate the pride of the CFMEU’s annual apprentice dinner.
It is a relaxed night when some of Queensland’s most promising young tradies - carpenters, gyprockers, brickies etc – are honoured, by their industry, their families and their union.
This year 600 people turned up to help celebrate one of the most successful apprenticeship schemes the construction industry has seen.
Stats collected by federal and state authorities show that, on average, about 50 percent of youngsters who enter construction apprenticeships finish their time. For government-funded group training programs, the figure is closer to 40 percent.
But the CFMEU Queensland’s scholarship program boasts an overall completion rate of 85 percent, rising to close on 100 percent for every position funded across the largest sector, construction.
And that’s no statistical aberration – 85 percent is the audited average since 1997.
CFMEU Construction Division state secretary, Michael Ravbar, says individual attention and support make the difference.
He credits predecessor, Wally Trohear, with devising a program that values apprentices as human beings, as well as workers.
“Wally wanted to make sure we had skilled people going into our industry but he also wanted good people,” Ravbar said. “He wanted our program to turn out people who would contribute to their communities as well as their industry.
“We try to stay true to that. Life-skills programs and leadership courses are an important part of what we do.”
There are around 300 young people on CFMEU scholarships at any time – split close to 50/50 between formal apprenticeships and traineeships. The courses last from two to four years.
The CFMEU advertises apprenticeships, screens applicants, conducts interviews, selects successful candidates and divides them among seven fulltime mentors who are all experienced trades people
The union meets travel and study costs, buys tools kits, then places apprentices with employers across the state. If a company folds, or a relationship fails, it does its damndest to find another employer.
Importantly, the union reimburses employers for the apprentice’s wages while they are studying at TAFE.
Scholarship mentors tic tac with trainee and employer, and offer what the union calls “pastoral care” – lending advice, or, often, just an ear to financial, family or relationship concerns.
Twice a year, scholarship holders turn up at the union office for leadership courses and life skills programs.
“There is a cost premium but the industry gets results,” Ravbar says. “Employers and governments want completions, qualified people going into the workforce, and that’s what we deliver.
“Our approach works and I don’t think many employers would disagree with that.”
Maybe not. But that wasn’t going to stop royal commission counsel assisting, Jeremy Stoljar, giving it both barrels.
During two days in Brisbane, Stoljar tried to paint this success story as just another form of union malevolence.
The approach was ideological, suspicious of any co-operation between union and employer, and deeply hostile to collective bargaining.
His central problem was that CFMEU scholarships are underpinned by collective agreements and delivered in co-operation with employers.
In Queensland, Stoljar’s principal target was the BERT Fund and, then, the BERTTraining Fund.
BERT is the Building Industry Redundancy Trust. It holds and disburses money to cover redundancies in an industry based on project work, much of it casual.
Employers bound by union agreements pay a set weekly amount into accounts in the names of individual employees. Workers can draw on this when a project finishes, or, if they face financial hardship and have money in their accounts.
It is a safeguard in a sector where thousands of companies fail every year.
BERT is controlled by a board made up of directors nominated, in equal numbers, by the Queensland Major Contractors Association and the CFMEU.
Any surpluses go to agreed industry benefits. These include funeral and dental benefits as well as the award-winning suicide prevention program, Mates in Construction.
But by far the biggest disbursements go to industry training, largely through the BERT Training Fund, also managed by employer and union directors.
Unions apply to BERT Training to fund initiatives like the CFMEU scholarship while employers get help with their labour costs.
Any funding application must win the support of both boards, including employer directors. These boards monitor progress and prepare final reports on each grant.
The training itself is audited by state and federal government agencies but you would never have known this from listening to Stoljar.
The suggestion was that CFMEU officials engaged in a range of “crimes” to prop up BERT for the union’s benefit. This in itself is ideological, ignoring the fact that, unlike private companies, the CFMEU is a member-owned non-profit.
Counsel Assisting rained questions and suggestions on the commission and those in the media room.
• where do the “vast” profits go?
• what happens to the $3.3 million earmarked for the union
• why not just let EBA employers refuse to pay?
“The answer,” to that question according to Counsel Assisting, “lies in the relationship between the CFMEU, its officers and the BERT Fund and, in particular, in the substantial flow of moneys out of the funds and into the coffers of the CFMEU.”
Counsel Assisting named union directors on boards distributing money but not their employer counterparts.
He then threw up the “Christmas Club”, the reddest of all herrings, and suggested it was a fraud on both the BERT Fund and the Australian Tax Office.
The ‘Christmas Club’ is industry slang for the longstanding sub-contractor practice of laying off workers at the end of the year, as one senior employer put it in evidence – “to clear their books”.
It has nothing to do with the union. Indeed, it is strongly opposed by building unions as another step down the road to insecure employment.
Stoljar says $2.35m is paid out for apprentice training but “it is not clear what the CFMEU does with this money”.
For a start, the Queensland CFMEU doesn’t train apprentices. The state is awash with Registered Training Organisations and, in the view of most, doesn’t need another one.
It runs a scholarship program, across six industry streams. Its mentors effectively sell apprenticeships to new industry players and subbies who couldn’t entertain the idea without the back-up the scholarship provides.
Every year, mentors engage contractors and sub-contractors about industry trends and their likely skill requirements.
Training team leader, Rob Cameron, says the ageing of Queensland’s skilled workforce is a growing concern to employers who can’t ignore their own data.
Cameron and his team work with trainees, apprentices, employers and RTOs to try and make sure every funded position returns a qualified trades person.
He has been working with some contractors since the scholarship began 17 years ago. In that time, small employers and sectors like civil construction, that previously did little formal training, have come on board.
Ravbar says the CFMEU doesn’t generate revenue out of scholarships. In fact, in some years, they have cost it substantial money.
In an effort to protect itself from the industry’s ups and downs, the CFMEU now tries to get its scholarship funding allocated in three-year blocks.
Ravbar says the union moved into training, in the 1990s, because employers dropped the ball and, at times, its scholarship has accounted for more than a quarter of construction industry apprentices across Queensland.
“That’s how bad things can get,” he says. “We got involved when business was not interested. They saw it as a capital outlay and couldn’t identify the return they would get.
“We filled the void and, since we got established, we have done it with the full support of the bosses. We might fight about everything else but, on training, we co-operate closely.
“We advertise for apprentices twice a year and we are always over-subscribed. If we had twice as much to spend, we would still fill the places, easily.
“In 17 years, no one has challenged our scholarships. I thought, for the Royal Commission to even go there, was just poor.”