Landmarks in the Australian apprenticeship and traineeship system

Author: Erica Smith, Professor of Vocational Education and Training, Federation University



Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina (1873) begins with the following famous quote: 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Similarly, every country aims at the same happy outcomes for its apprenticeship system: skilled workers for industry, a labour force matching that needed by the economy, contented and competent workers, and a structure for young people to move from school into work. But every country has problems with its apprenticeship system that are unique to that country because of economic and social factors and power struggles among stakeholders. Generally, governments commission reports when there is a problem with the apprenticeship system; or, alternatively, a problem to which apprenticeship is seen to be able to contribute a solution or part of a solution. All of these matters are reflected, to varying degrees, in the VOCEDplus landmark documents relating to apprenticeships and traineeships between 1954 and 2010. The apprenticeship field continues to evolve, and so two later reports (from 2011 and 2016) are also included in this overview.

Overview of the Australian system

Apprenticeship always closely combines work and learning, and so in most countries, two government departments are involved: the ministries of labour or employment, and education.

Australia has a somewhat different but related approach. Apprenticeships – and vocational education and training (VET) in general – are generally managed within one section in a government department, but that section migrates quite frequently from education department to employment department – and back again. These movements may occur at both State/Territory government and Commonwealth level but are most common at Commonwealth level1.

State and Territory governments have legislative responsibility for determining the vocations suitable for apprenticeships, as well as for the regulation of training contracts and funding for off-the-job training. They are also responsible for collecting apprenticeship statistics. The Commonwealth government administers a number of programs including financial incentives for employers who employ apprentices. Examples of programs include special payment schemes, such as those offered most recently during COVID-19, for individual apprentices in particular circumstances, and the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network, a network of contractors who manage some administrative aspects of apprentice contracting, and support in specified circumstances.

Another key player in apprenticeships in Australia is the network of Group Training Organisations. These organisations act as the employer for around one-tenth of Australian apprentices and trainees, 'leasing' them to 'host employers' for their workplace experience. They aim to include more employers in the system by taking care of administrative arrangements and reducing the risk to employers in case of economic downturn (Smith 2019, p.26).

What are the objectives of apprenticeship systems?

The Board of INAP, the International Network on Innovative Apprenticeship, sets out four main objectives of apprenticeship systems, particularly in so-called 'dual system' countries where on-the-job training in a company and off-the-job learning at an education institution are combined. These four objectives are:

  • Better co-ordination between vocational education and training (VET) systems and employer/labour market systems;
  • Promoting employment opportunities for young people, thus facilitating transition from school to work;
  • Improving the competitiveness of companies2; and
  • Opening up rewarding careers for a large segment of the population (INAP 2012, p.5).

Some countries, especially developing countries, also use apprenticeship systems as a vehicle to assist disadvantaged people or groups into employment, as occurs, for example in India (Smith, Brennan Kemmis & Comyn 2014).

It would generally be agreed that Australian apprenticeships involve the four major objectives set out by INAP and also the aim of assisting disadvantaged people. The Australian system has an added objective: the provision to apprentices and trainees of qualifications on the Australian Qualification Framework, unlike some other countries where apprenticeship does not involve a qualification. To achieve this, the Australian system does not mandate that apprentices or trainees attend a training provider, but a training provider (known in Australia as a Registered Training Organisation [RTO]) is required to have involvement in every apprenticeship and awards the associated qualification.

When governments consult with stakeholders about apprenticeships, unions and employers and their respective peak bodies, as well as education providers are generally included (Deissinger & Gonon 2015; Wolter & Ryan 2011). Such 'social dialogue' is described by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as one of six 'quality apprenticeship building blocks' (ILO 2017). In Australia, depending on the issues at stake, and other political agendas, different stakeholder groups have varying degrees of influence at different times, and this is apparent in the landmark documents.

Since the mid-1980s, the Australian apprenticeship system has added traineeships to its traditional base of craft and manufacturing apprenticeships. Traineeships are a form of shorter apprenticeship, typically one year in length compared with three or four years for traditional apprenticeships; traineeships have generally, but not always, been in newer or service sector occupations (Smith 2010). They were, in fact, introduced as the result of one of the landmark documents – the Kirby report in 1985, as will be explained later. Other countries have significantly expanded their systems in a similar way, notably in the United Kingdom, where while the single term 'apprenticeship' is used, there was a period when newer forms of apprenticeship had a different name: 'modern apprenticeships'. In other countries, such as Germany, the apprenticeship system has always had much more comprehensive occupational coverage and a higher participation rate. In Switzerland, another highly respected apprenticeship system, the five most frequently undertaken apprenticeship occupations are all what would be traineeships in Australia (Gonon 2021).

In this overview, except where the two types of contracted training–apprenticeships and traineeships–are specifically discussed as separate entities, the term 'apprenticeship' is used to describe the entire Australian system, i.e. apprenticeships and traineeships.

Histories of apprenticeship in Australia

Considering the importance of apprenticeship to the Australian economy and society, and the way in which government ministers frequently refer to apprenticeship as a desirable institution, it is surprising that in recent decades, only two histories of Australian apprenticeship were published, by Rorrison (1988) and Knight (2010), both fairly brief. Rorrison's report includes a historical overview of the British system and also, briefly, the system's expansion into North America. It also covers the entire period of European settlement in Australia but is confined primarily to Queensland. The report includes a special examination of female participation in apprenticeship, and of the activities of Group Training Organisations. Knight's history also briefly covers European apprenticeship history and gives a comprehensive overview of apprenticeship in Australia from early European settler times to 2011. In his report, Knight identifies some ongoing trends in apprenticeship including changes in the 'occupational mix', apprenticeship's relationship with licensing, the inclusion of adults in the system, and whether education adequately addresses general education for young apprentices. Knight notes the high regard in which Australian apprenticeships were held in 2011 but describes apprenticeship as an 'unfinished system'. It is notable that both Rorrison's and Knight's reports take an international view of apprenticeships and display a keen awareness of the multiple purposes of apprenticeship, some features which could be said to be lacking in some of the landmark documents, although one document, the Commonwealth/State Training Advisory Committee (COSTAC) overseas mission (1990) was explicitly focused on international practices.

Other histories and overviews of VET devote attention to aspects of apprenticeships, notably Hermann, Richardson and Woodburne's book 'Trade and Technician Education' (1976); Goozee's work 'From Tech to TAFE 1949–1997' (2013); and an NCVER report on policy trends in VET (Atkinson & Stanwick 2016). There is a substantial body of Australian research into apprenticeship,3 much of it funded by the NCVER. In this literature, discussions of aspects of apprenticeship history can sometimes be found but this body of work, however, has not expanded significantly in recent years.

The landmark documents

Of the 30 plus landmark documents listed on VOCEDplus, 10 are flagged by 'thematic icons' as having as having a particular focus on apprenticeships. However, many more of the documents mention apprenticeships, or have content which directly impacts on apprenticeships. Since apprenticeships involve employment (especially of young people), training both in workplaces and in training providers, and production of skilled labour both for the economy as a whole and for specific employers, this relative ubiquity is not surprising, as these matters are core elements for VET as a whole. Moreover, apprenticeships are as affected by changes to curriculum and funding regimes as any other part of the VET system.

For the purposes of this overview, however, only those 10 documents specifically flagged as relating to apprenticeships are discussed. The four most significant and central reports are addressed in particular detail and are discussed first. Two later reports, extending past the time period of the landmark documents timeline, have been added in this section, due to their significance and their specific focus on apprenticeships, creating a core pool of six key documents. A brief overview of the remaining six flagged documents then follows.

A subsequent section discusses three key themes of those first six, core, documents: system size, gender participation in the system, and key concerns of the system.

Landmark documents of key importance to, and focus on, apprenticeships

Table 1 details the most significant landmark documents and the two later reports. The table shows, for each document, the level of government, and the name and composition of the authoring committee or panel, and the extent of its focus on apprenticeship.

Table 1 The Landmark Documents most relevant to apprenticeships: an overview

DateReport nameLevel of governmentProportion of apprenticeship contentComposition of committee/panel
1954Commonwealth-State Apprenticeship Inquiry-Report of Committee [Wright report]Joint Commonwealth-StateAlmost entirely about apprenticeships, although considered other means of supply of 'skilled tradesmen'9 members; all men
  • a commonwealth judge (chair)
  • 4 State/Territory representatives from technical education departments
  • 2 employer peak bodies
  • 2 trade union officials
1985Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs [Kirby report]Commonwealth government-appointed committeeCovered a broad range of labour market issues, but apprenticeships and the proposal for new 'traineeships' were foremost in recommendations

5 members: 4 men and 1 woman

  • a senior official in the Education Department of Victoria (chair)
  • an industrial relations academic
  • President of Queensland's peak trade union body
  • Head of the women's unit in NSW TAFE
  • manager in manufacturing company
1991Skills training for the 21st century: a report on skills training: apprenticeships and traineeshipsCommonwealth government-standing committee of elected members of ParliamentPrimarily about apprenticeships

12 members: 10 men, 2 women
All members of Parliament

1996The employment of apprentices: the barriers [Marshman report]A consultancy (by Bob Marshman & Associates) commissioned by the Australian National Training AuthorityEntirely about apprenticeships, but only covering three tradesBob Marshman was a senior public servant in the Commonwealth and then the Queensland government
2011A shared responsibility: apprenticeships for the 21st century [Expert Panel report]Commonwealth government-appointed 'Expert panel' to provide adviceEntirely about apprenticeships

7 members: 5 men, 2 women

  • 3 senior industry managers - construction, mining and aerospace
  • 2 senior trade union figures: head of the national manufacturing workers' union; and an officer of the national peak union body
  • a former senior manager in a State TAFE system
  • an industrial relations academic
2016Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group: recommendation reportCommonwealth government-appointed Advisory Group 'to represent the views of industry'Entirely about apprenticeships

6 members plus the Chair who was a Member of Parliament: 4 men, 2 women

  • 2 managers of Group Training Organisations
  • a senior manager in the mining industry
  • an education and training official of an industry peak body
  • a CEO of a 3D manufacturing industry association/lobby group


A brief overview is now given of the main content and recommendations of the reports. The Wright report (1954) is addressed in most detail, as it provided the foundation for apprenticeship developments in subsequent decades. It proposed the following, among a comprehensive list of 90 recommendations:

  • The 'indenture' system should be retained; the form of the indenture should be simplified, and standardised across Australia;
  • Apprenticeships should normally be for five years, but the term could be reduced for previous experience or education;
  • Apprenticeships must normally be completed by age 21, with up to 24 allowable. Adults to be excluded;
  • There should be compulsory attendance at 'trade classes' with the committee divided between those wishing attendance to be purely day-time and those suggesting that evening attendance would be acceptable;
  • Living away from home allowances should be provided for 'youths in country areas'; and
  • The attractiveness of unpopular trades such as food trades should be addressed.

There was also a series of recommendations about: employers having a 'quota' of apprentices; the ratio of apprentices compared with 'journeymen'; wage rates; certification and licensing; apprentice logbooks; the length and content of training at technical college (including education about citizenship); and an Apprenticeship Authority to address disciplinary and other matters. In addition, 'teacher-training' for 'trade school instructors' was recommended.

It can be seen that, apart from the exclusion of women (which will be discussed later in this overview), the Wright inquiry confirmed and established the scene not only for the apprenticeship system as it has been since that date; but also addressed many issues that are still debated today. These include the links to licensing, the length of apprentice terms, and the attractiveness of apprenticeship to potential candidates.

The 1985 Kirby report recommended that the 'labour market' (employment-related) programs that existed at that time of high unemployment should be reoriented to training; and that a new program called 'traineeships' should be introduced, initially aimed at young people aged 16-17 years. It recommended the continuation of financial assistance for existing traditional apprentice occupations, and for additional funding for women and disadvantaged groups. The 1991 Skills training for the 21st century report extended these recommendations by proposing that apprenticeships and traineeships be integrated into one system. It proposed the introduction of formal training contracts, a formal 'training wage' for people in this system, the expansion of the system into areas not previously involved, and the extension of the apprenticeship system to adults.

These two reports led to substantial change. The traineeship program was introduced as a result of the Kirby report, and all apprenticeships were extended to adults, as recommended in the Skills training for the 21st century report. Although traineeships grew slowly initially, they gathered momentum through some specific 'kick-starting' measures such as an initiative called 'NETTFORCE' which aimed to ameliorate unemployment through speedy establishment of traineeships (Smith & Keating 2003, p.90). The introduction of traineeships meant that the apprentice system covered more of the economy, particularly with the system now extending into the service sector. An integrated 'national apprenticeship system' was established, in 1998, but in practice the two components — traditional apprenticeships and traineeships — continue to be differentiated in common parlance, although not officially, and are shown in apprenticeship statistics by the use of the proxy terms 'trade' and 'non-trade'.

The 1996 report by Marshman and Associates was limited to recruitment issues in three traditional trades. Some of the issues discussed were the difficulty of recruiting apprentices in uncertain economic times and in a sub-contracting environment, the diminishing quality of the applicant pool, and the poor image of the trades. In some respects, it reiterated issues mentioned in the 1954 Wright report. The positive effects of adult apprenticeships, of traineeships in the relevant industries, and of Group Training Organisations were noted.

The 2011 'Expert Panel' report made a number of proposals including the refocusing of the system to give priority to occupations which were on a national skills priority list and to apprenticeships leading to 'occupations that provided the individual with a valued career… and gave tangible and enduring value for … the economy' (p.14). These criteria applied to, or were considered to apply to, traditional trade occupations, with community services, health and information technology also considered to meet these criteria. The report also proposed, inter alia, the establishment of a 'National Custodian' whose office would oversee the apprenticeship system, the accreditation of employers of apprentices and an employer contribution scheme.

Only the proposals about refocusing the system were implemented, but to immediate and lasting effect. The report proposed that 'a range of occupations would not be eligible for structured support services'. Soon afterwards, the Commonwealth government removed some employer incentives from traineeship occupations, as well as removing employer incentives for 'existing workers' (i.e. those already working for an employer before being moved onto an apprenticeship), although the latter measure had not been advocated by the Expert Panel. Also, similar criteria were used by some State and Territory governments4 to remove or reduce funding for off-the-job training in the industry areas covered by most traineeships. The combined effect of Commonwealth and State/Territory measures was that the numbers of apprentices commencing in Australia fell each year from 376 900 at 30 June 2012 to 162 600 at 30 June 2017 (NCVER 2020).

After a gap of five years, an Apprenticeship Reform Advisory Group (2016) was asked to advise on three areas of reform: financial incentives to employ apprentices – perhaps in partial redress of the Expert Panel report; pre-apprenticeship training; and pilots of alternative models of apprenticeship delivery. In fact, the group provided broader advice, including proposing a comprehensive review of apprenticeships and 'a more comprehensive and flexible apprenticeship policy'; the development of an information hub; and raising the profile of apprenticeships. The government's apprenticeship web portal was subsequently expanded, presumably in response; and some elements of the recommendations can be seen in the establishment of a National Careers Institute in 2019. In some respects, the report's focus on 'nuts and bolts' of the system was more aligned to the Marshman (1996) report - albeit with an eye to all industries, not just traditional trades — than either the earlier documents proposing system expansion, or the Expert Panel (2011) report which proposed a more focused system.

Landmark documents with a secondary emphasis on apprenticeships

In this section the six landmark documents that did not focus on apprenticeships, yet included relevant content, are discussed. These are the:

The Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Training (Cochrane report 1974) had a broad remit to examine the potential contribution of training to assist with full employment and to address the changing needs of the labour market. Apprenticeship formed only part of the deliberations. The committee called for a national inquiry into apprenticeships, and to ensure adult access to apprenticeships. It also, specifically, proposed what it called 'group apprenticeship programmes'. These were not the same as modern-day group training organisations; they were a form of pre-apprenticeships where the first year would be undertaken off-the-job before the apprentices were placed in industry. The apprentices would be paid a training allowance which equated to the apprentice subsidy payable to employers.

The 1979 Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training (Williams report) focused on education provision in all sectors of education, and links between the education system and the labour market. The report was extremely wide-ranging. In a small section on 'trade training', there was an emphasis, as in the Cochrane report, on pre-employment training, a call for a greater proportion of off-the-job training and a suggestion for TAFE to assist in apprentice selection. The report also advocated trade training for adults, although it did not refer to such training as apprenticeships.

The COSTAC (Commonwealth/State Training Advisory Committee 1990) overseas mission visited six countries, the OECD in Paris and the European Community's 'CEDEFOP'5 VET centre, examining developments in VET. While apprenticeship was not considered as a topic per se, the mission examined different systems of 'entry level training' ranging from mainly work-based (Germany – the apprenticeship 'Dual System') to mainly institution-based (e.g. Sweden). The Committee's report (1990) proposed an 'integrated set of education and training options' to cover all young people up to the equivalent of Year 12. This was to be based on industry standards, at that time being developed by the National Training Board. The committee found that most countries encouraged training by adults, in contrast to what they saw as happening in Australia, reporting that in the USA and Canada, for example, apprenticeships were more commonly undertaken by adults than by young people.

The 1992 Employment and Skills Formation Council report on the Australian Vocational Training System (the Carmichael report) had a grand aim of encouraging competency-based and certificate-based training throughout the economy. Although apprenticeships were not explicitly named, it was clear that they formed part of the picture. In fact, the report paid more explicit attention to traineeships (then known as the Australian Traineeship System [ATS]) in industries such as retail, tourism and office services than to traditional apprenticeships. The report proposed that labour market programs should articulate into formal certificate-based training, and that employer subsidies for apprenticeship and traineeships should remain. In this report, Group Training schemes were mentioned, but again, as in the Cochrane report, with an emphasis on training not on employment functions.

The 1996 report of the Review of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) agreement was primarily focused on funding arrangements. The report encouraged more competition among training providers, and here it mentioned 'user choice' trials for apprenticeships in States and Territories. The term 'user choice' referred to state government funding for apprenticeships and traineeships, allowing employers to choose the training provider to which they would send their apprentices or trainees, which was one of the earliest forms of competition using government funds for VET. At that time traditional apprenticeships were not covered by user choice; only traineeships were (Goozee 2013, pp.413–415); but both were included across Australia from 1998 (Kemp 1998).

The most recent of these six reports is Creating a future direction for Australian vocational education and training by Skills Australia (2010). This organisation was at that time an independent government agency, replaced in 2012 by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, and was set up to provide advice to the Federal Minister on 'Australia's current, emerging and future workforce skills needs.' The 2010 discussion paper was followed up with extensive consultations in which apprenticeship was one of the seven issues covered. The report discussed low completion rates, support for apprentices, and the difficulties created by differences among States and Territories. It explicitly mentioned traineeships, school-based apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships. Skills Australia proposed a new model for an apprenticeship system, containing apprenticeships of differing lengths, complexity and levels, from certificate II to diploma level.

Key themes in the core landmark documents

In this section three key themes are explored in the six core documents (Table 1): the size of the apprenticeship system, the treatment or consideration of female participation in apprenticeships, and what the documents show about the key concerns of the system.

The size of the apprenticeship system

Table 2 summarises the reports' intended or actual effects on apprenticeship system size. The table indicates that for over half a century, system expansion was a key aim, but that this halted in 2011.

Table 2   The six reports and apprenticeship system size

DateReport nameProposed or likely/observed effect on size of system
1954Commonwealth-State Apprenticeship Inquiry-Report of Committee [Wright report]Expansion, but excluding females
1985Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs [Kirby report]Expansion
1991Skills training for the 21st century: a report on skills training: apprenticeships and traineeshipsExpansion
1996The employment of apprentices: the barriers [Marshman report]Reversing decline in apprentice numbers in certain traditional trades
2011A shared responsibility: apprenticeships for the 21st century [Expert Panel report]Contraction, prioritising certain occupations
2016Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group: recommendation reportRebuilding

Expansion was a key theme until 2011 (although in the Wright report, only for men) after which, in the aftermath of the Expert Panel report, the system contracted sharply, as detailed in the previous section. Other factors such as budgetary issues may also have contributed to the subsequent removal of funding from some apprenticeships. To some degree, the contraction to the system had an impact on female participation, which is now discussed.

Participation of women in apprenticeships

Female participation in the historically male institution of apprenticeship is key to increasing the numbers of apprentices as well as being an important equity matter. This could be done by making apprenticeships available in a wider range of occupations (e.g. UN Economic and Social Commission 2011, p.5) and/or by encouraging more women to undertake traditional trades apprenticeships (e.g. Jones et al. 2017).

A feature of these six core documents is the shift, over a period of more than 60 years, in their stance on the participation of women in apprenticeships. Table 3 summarises the treatment of gender in the documents. Interestingly, while the composition of the committees and panels (see Table 1) shows that apprenticeship policy-making is still very much a male-dominated field, the gender composition of the panels does not appear to have a link to the presence or absence of provisions relating to gender.

Table 3   Treatment of gender in the core documents

DateReport nameTreatment of gender
1954Commonwealth-State Apprenticeship Inquiry-Report of Committee [Wright report]Females, and female apprenticeships, were explicitly excluded from the considerations.
1985Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs [Kirby report]Proposed equal access for traineeships and other programs for females. Noted that 96% of trade apprentices were men, and that the shift of nursing training from hospitals to colleges would reduce apprenticeship opportunities for females.
1991Skills training for the 21st century: a report on skills training: apprenticeships and traineeshipsPrinciples included enhanced access of women to trade areas and in 'extending structured training to traditionally female occupations' (p.23).
1996The employment of apprentices: the barriers [Marshman report]No mention of gender.
2011A shared responsibility: apprenticeships for the 21st century [Expert Panel report]Acknowledges that its proposal to end structured support for apprenticeships and traineeships in some [listed] occupations may reduce female participation. Suggests that more women can be attracted to traditional trade areas to compensate.
2016Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group: recommendation reportNo mention of gender.

The six core documents listed in Table 3 show significant shifts in advocacy for the expansion of female participation in apprenticeships, starting from what could be described as a low base in the 1954 Wright report:

We have had surprisingly little controversy regarding the concept signified by [the expression 'skilled tradesman'], but for the sake of clarity it should be stated that we do not regard it as embracing every apprenticeship trade — e.g. we do not regard apprentices to retail trades or to pharmacy as comprehended ... And, we have, in our consideration of the subject, excluded females from the concept, even in occupations which have formal apprenticeships for them — such as hairdressing, tailoring and associated trades (1954, p.10).

This extract indicates that the expected controversy was about which occupations were viewed as 'skilled', rather than about whether women should be included. No explanation or justification was offered for the omission of women or of the occupations they preferred. While this seems almost incomprehensible in the current day, it should be remembered that the report was undertaken at a time when National Service for men was still in place in Australia and retraining for war veterans was operational; hence preferential access to training for men was perhaps more acceptable than it would be now.

The 1985 and 1991 reports show a clear commitment to the improvement of women's access to apprenticeships and traineeships. For example, in his 1985 report, Kirby used 1984 government figures showing that 96% of apprentices were male to argue that lack of female participation was a problem that needed to be addressed. Likewise, the 1991 Skills training for the 21st century report was firm in its insistence that access of women to apprenticeships should increase.

The 1996 Marshman report was silent on gender, although its focus on 'traditional trades' implicitly excluded women; there was certainly no discussion of attracting women to these occupations, despite the report's focus on increasing the numbers of apprentices.

The Expert Panel (2011) advocated the allocation of government support to a list of occupations deemed 'eligible apprenticeships and traineeships', based on national skills needs lists. The Panel did recognise that this proposal had the potential to adversely affect the participation of women, stating:

…a range of occupations would not be eligible for structured support services. This includes hospitality, clerical and administrative workers, sales workers, machinery operators and drivers, and labourers occupations. However, we do not recommend that apprenticeships and traineeships cease to be offered for these occupations. As some of these occupations are traditionally female dominated, this policy has the potential to affect female commencements substantially more than male commencements. This can be mitigated by implementing strategies to assist females to enter non‐traditional (sic) apprenticeships and traineeships6. (2011, p.57).

Service Skills Australia (2011), at that time the Industry Skills Council for service industries, argued strongly against this clause, saying that '…recommendation five [where the ineligibility of these occupations was stated] strikes at the heart of highly-feminised workforces' (p.10). Service Skills Australia also pointed out that the national skills priority list was, in fact, a list set up for 'skilled migration' purposes and should not have been used to make decisions about training Australian workers (Service Skills Australia 2011)7. While the Expert Panel report stated that women could be encouraged to take up traditional apprenticeships instead, this has not occurred, as reported by Misko (2020), and may never occur, possibly as young people's occupational choices are very often gender-specific, as Malin and Jacob (2019) note from research into career aspirations of young people in Germany.

The 2016 report, much like the Marshman report 20 years earlier was also silent on female participation. The momentum gained in the previous 25 years, from 1991–2016, was therefore lost, with women forming only about 35% of all commencing apprentices and only around 12.5% of commencing apprentices in trade occupations at 30th June 2017. Between 1991–2016, the proportion of women commencing a trade occupation peaked in 2003 with 20% of commencing trade apprentices being female (NCVER 2020).

Participation of 'adults' in apprenticeships

While women's participation remains problematic, there has been an enduring shift in attitudes towards the participation of adults as well as young people. The 1954 Wright report saw apprentices as only for young people, stating 'We do not wish to offer, even implicitly, any encouragement for boys (sic) to enter dead-end jobs on leaving school and then to seek the advantages of a trade when they are adults.' (p.30). But the 1991 Skills training for the 21st century report's recommendation to expand the system to adults was not subsequently questioned. Two decades later, even the conservative Expert Panel (2011) did not question the inclusion of adults in the system. Subsequent changes in financial incentives for employers have not disadvantaged employers who employ mature-aged apprentices (Misko 2020), although some of the changes have discouraged the employment of 'existing workers', who are perhaps more likely to be mature.

The different purposes of apprenticeships

As noted earlier, national apprenticeship systems have many objectives, some of which are shared by all countries and others which may be country-specific. Smith (2018a) proposes a model illustrating these potential emphases for apprenticeship systems (Figure 1 below) which also shows how a change in one purpose can adversely affect one or more of the other purposes.

Figure 1 Potential emphases for apprenticeship systems

Figure 1: Potential emphases for apprenticeship systems
Source: Smith 2018a

When the elements of this Figure are applied to the six core reports, the following picture emerges (Table 4).

Table 4   Primary emphases of the six core Landmark Documents (using categories proposed by Smith 2018a)

DateReport nameApprenticeship emphasis foregrounded
1954Commonwealth-State Apprenticeship Inquiry-Report of Committee [Wright report]National skill development
1985Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs [Kirby report]Youth employment; inclusivity
1991Skills training for the 21st century: a report on skills training: apprenticeships and traineeshipsYouth employment; inclusivity
1996The employment of apprentices: the barriers [Marshman report]Enterprise skill formation
2011A shared responsibility: apprenticeships for the 21st century [Expert Panel report]National skill development
2016Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group: recommendation reportEnterprise skill formation

Smith (2018a) suggests that if a country chooses to rebalance the emphases of its system there may be adverse effects on the other purposes. For example, choosing to use apprenticeships primarily to address or prevent youth unemployment, as was common in many countries after the Global Financial Crisis, could adversely affect high-level skill development in companies. This is not to say that rebalancing a system should not be done, but that it should be done with awareness of the consequences, and with plans to address them. Table 4 shows us that youth employment and inclusivity are less of a part of modern-day apprenticeship discussions than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Many stakeholder groups would see this as unfortunate. Another purpose rarely addressed in the six core documents is the capacity of apprenticeship to train for innovation, although occasionally there is passing reference to changes in industry both in the core documents and in some of the other flagged documents. The topic is however, discussed elsewhere (e.g., Loveder 2017).


The previous section has focused on three key themes as important lenses through which to examine the core landmark documents. When these documents are considered alongside the documents with a secondary emphasis on apprenticeships the following pattern emerges.

The series of documents enables us to detect some major narrative arcs in the story of development of the apprenticeship and traineeship system in Australia. Expansion has been a major narrative arc but was then countered by contraction; the inclusion of women, and of adults, are major arcs.8 These arcs are set within broader VET-system trajectories, such as the marketisation of the VET system, and the growing hegemony of the competency-based curriculum system, both developing since around 1990. These developments themselves occur within external settings such as Federal-State relations, the industrial relations system, and industrial restructuring, all which impact on the apprenticeship system in major ways. There are a number of minor themes which recur through the documents, for example ways of addressing shortages of applicants (e.g., through pre-apprenticeships), group apprenticeship programs of various types to provide communal solutions to common problems, support systems to prevent apprentice attrition; and passing references to the need to improve the status of apprenticeships.

In the two most recent documents (2011 and 2016), it is not difficult to detect the interests of the authoring committees – the trade union movement and industries employing 'traditional apprentices' in the Expert Panel report (2011); and employers, in the Apprenticeship Reform Advisory Group report (2016). However, in the other landmark documents, in both core and non-core documents, there has been a more balanced representation in committee membership among the different stakeholder groups (Table 1).

The apprenticeship system is essentially conservative, as it generally attempts to balance these competing interests, with the result that systems are slow to change (Smith 2018b). This is perhaps why the landmark documents do not address apprenticeship's role in innovation; or why radical ideas for reform such as those proposed by Skills Australia (2010) or COSTAC (1990), or even the suggestion by the Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group (2016) for a thorough review of why apprenticeships have not been taken up.

One change over time has been the decrease in the landmark documents of references to the history of the apprenticeship system. This matter was covered extensively in the 1954 Wright report. In the Kirby report, developments from 1970 onwards are referred to; but historical developments are not alluded to in the most recent reports (apart from one sentence in the Expert Panel report), suggesting perhaps that policy suggestions have been made in an historical vacuum. The Wright report itself provided 90 suggestions for improving apprenticeships, many of which have applicability today and could usefully be re-considered. Perhaps it is time to commission a comprehensive history of apprenticeships in Australia, to provide a reference for future policy development.


2. 'Companies' encompasses other organisations that might employ apprentices, such as government departments.

4. As noted earlier, funding for training delivery is provided by States and Territories.

6. It is assumed that 'non-traditional' is intended to mean apprenticeships and traineeships traditionally undertaken by men.

7. This concern had also been mentioned by the Expert Panel, which noted, however, that the skills lists were the most suited for its purposes at that time (p.57).

8. This statement is based on data prior to recent expansion arising from wage subsidy stimulus initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Landmark reports

Australia. Parliament. House of Representatives. Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training 1991, Skills training for the 21st century: a report on skills training: apprenticeships and traineeships, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Bob Marshman & Associates 1996, The employment of apprentices: the barriers [Marshman report], [ANTA], [Brisbane].

Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training 1979, Education, training and employment: report of the Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training [Williams report], Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs 1985, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs [Kirby report], Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Commonwealth-State Training Advisory Committee 1990a, COSTAC overseas mission to study developments in vocational education and training [COSTAC report], Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

——1990b, COSTAC overseas mission to study developments in vocational education and training: country reports [COSTAC report], Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Commonwealth-State Committee of Inquiry Into Apprenticeship 1954, Commonwealth-State Apprenticeship Inquiry: report of committee [Wright report], W M Houston Government Printer, Melbourne.

Department of Labour 1974, Australian labour market training: report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Training [Cochrane report], Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Employment and Skills Formation Council 1992, The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System [Carmichael report], National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Canberra.

Skills Australia 2010, Creating a future direction for Australian vocational education and training: a discussion paper on the future of the VET system, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Taylor, R 1996, Report of the review of the Australian National Training Authority Agreement, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Later reports of key importance to, and focus on, apprenticeships

Laundy, C, Lindgren, J, McDougall, I, Diamond, T, Lambert, J, Luciani, D & De Souza, M 2016, Apprenticeships Reform Advisory Group: recommendation report, Department of Education and Training, [Canberra].

McDowell, J, Oliver, D, Persson, M, Fairbrother, R, Wetzlar, S, Buchanan, J & Shipstone, T 2011, A shared responsibility: apprenticeships for the 21st century: final report of the Expert Panel, DEEWR, Canberra.

General references

Atkinson, G & Stanwick, J 2016, Trends in VET: policy and participation, NCVER, Adelaide.

Deissinger, T & Gonon, P 2015, ‘Stakeholders in the German and the Swiss VET system and their role in innovating apprenticeships’, in (eds) E Smith, P Gonon & A J Foley, Architectures for apprenticeship: achieving economic and social goals, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, pp.68-71.

Gonon, P 2021, ‘Swiss VET and pandemia (COVID 19)’, presented at The State of Apprenticeship during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Reports from Seven Countries, INAP virtual forum, viewed 26 May 2021

Goozee, G 2013, From tech to TAFE, 1949-1997, Retired NSW TAFE Officers’ Association, Sydney.

Hermann, G, Richardson, E & Woodburne, G 1976, Trade and technician education, Cassell, Sydney.

INAP Commission 2012, Memorandum: an architecture for modern apprenticeships – standards for structure, organisation and management, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

International Labour Office Skills and Employability Branch 2017, ILO toolkit for quality apprenticeships, volume 1: guide for policy makers, ILO, Geneva.

Jones, A, Clayton, B, Pfitzner, N & Guthrie, H 2017, Perfect for a woman: increasing participation of women in electrical trades, Victoria University, Melbourne.

Kemp, D (the Hon.) 1998, ‘The VET market’, in (eds) C Robinson & R Kenyon, The market for vocational education and training, pp.1-10, NCVER, Adelaide.

Knight, B 2012, Evolution of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia: an unfinished history, NCVER, Adelaide.

Loveder, P 2017, Australian apprenticeships: trends, challenges and future opportunities for dealing with Industry 4.0, NCVER, Adelaide.

Malin, L & Jacob, M 2019, ‘Gendered occupational aspirations of boys and girls in Germany: the impact of local VET and labour markets’, Journal of vocational education and training, vol.71, no.3, pp.429-448.

Misko, J 2020, Traditional trade apprenticeships: training activity, employer incentives and international practice, NCVER, Adelaide.

NCVER 2020, Historical time series of apprenticeships and traineeships in Australia from 1963 to 2020, NCVER, Adelaide.

Rorrison, J 1988, The apprenticeship system: Australian style: a brief history of the apprenticeship system, Queensland Department of Employment, Vocational Education and Training, Brisbane.

Service Skills Australia 2011, A shared responsibility for all industries: response to ‘Apprenticeships for the 21st Century’, Service Skills Australia, Sydney.

Smith, E 2010, ‘Apprenticeships’, in (eds) P Peterson, B McGaw & E Baker, International encyclopedia of education, 3rd edn, vol.8, pp.312-319, Elsevier, Oxford.

——2018a, ‘Revisiting apprenticeships as a response to persistent and growing youth unemployment’, in (eds) A Sakamoto & J Sung, Skills and the future of work: strategies for inclusive growth in Asia and the Pacific, pp.160-179, International Labour Organization, Geneva.

——2018b, ‘Opportunities and challenges for apprenticeship: what’s next for this model of learning?’ Keynote speech to the International Conference on Innovations in Apprenticeships: A Skilled Workforce for the Future, International Labour Organization, OECD and Global Apprenticeship Network, Geneva, July 4-5.

——2019, Intermediary organizations in apprenticeship systems, International Labour Organization, Geneva.

Smith, E, Brennan Kemmis, R & Comyn, P 2014,  ‘How can the expansion of the apprenticeship system in India create conditions for greater equity and social justice?’, Australian journal of adult learning, vol.54, no.3, pp.368-388.

Smith, E & Keating, J 2003, From training reform to Training Packages, Social Science Press, Tuggerah Lakes, NSW.

United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on the Status of Women 2011, ‘Agreed conclusions on access and participation of women and girls in education, training and science and technology, including for the promotion of women's equal access to full employment and decent work’ in Report of the Commission on the Status of Women on the fifty-fifth session (12 March 2010, 22 February-4 March and 14 March 2011), pp.1-10, United Nations Publications, New York.

Wolter, S & Ryan, P 2011, ‘Apprenticeship’, in (eds) E Hanushek, S Machin & L Woessmann Handbook of the economics of education, vol. 3, North-Holland/Elsevier, San Diego, California, pp.521-576.

Erica SmithAbout Erica Smith

PhD, MA, BA (Hons), Masters of HRM, GradDip VET, CertIV TAE, Professor of Vocational Education and Training, Federation University

Erica Smith is an experienced researcher who has been researching apprenticeships and traineeships for over 25 years, managing many international as well as Australian research projects. Erica joined Federation University (at that time the University of Ballarat) in 2008, prior to which she was Professor of Vocational Education and Training (VET) at Charles Sturt University. Her main research areas are: apprenticeships and traineeships, competency-based training, VET teachers and VET teacher qualifications, training in industry, and young people and the labour market. In addition to research expertise, Erica also has practical experience in TAFE and in other roles in the VET sector, industry experience, and extensive policy engagement. She is co-chair of the International Network for Innovative Apprenticeships (INAP), convenor of the Australian Council of Deans of Education Vocational Education Group, and a member of the editorial board of four journals. View Erica's work in VOCEDplus.

How to cite this overview

Smith, E 2022, Landmarks in the Australian apprenticeship and traineeship system, VET Knowledge Bank, NCVER, Adelaide, <>.

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