ABC Radio National AM Interview with Sabra Lane

$2 billion JobTrainer skills announcement, JobKeeper, continued economic impact of COVID-19 outbreaks

SABRA LANE: Michaelia Cash is the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business. Michaelia Cash, good morning, welcome to AM.

MINISTER CASH: Good morning Sabra and great to be with you.

SABRA LANE: The Job Trainer package; the courses will be free or low cost. When will they begin? And when will the Skills Commissioner identify what skills shortages need to be filled?

MINISTER CASH: The Skills Commission is already working with states and territories in relation to the labour market demand. And in relation to the courses themselves states are, basically, ready to go as of September-October this year. That’s good news for 340,000 Australians who will be given the opportunity to upskill or reskill at little or no cost.

SABRA LANE: This is dependent on the states and territories putting in half a billion dollars and agreeing to nationally consistent standards - the Prime Minister outlined that two months ago. When will you get an agreement with the states to do all of this?

MINISTER CASH: Well, we've had incredibly positive discussions with the states and territories, a number have already signed up to the agreement and some still have to go through their Cabinet processes. But certainly, to date very, very positive discussions, and you only need to have a look at how the Commonwealth states and territories have recently funded $80 million dollars in terms of the new infectious disease control training. This is all about working together to ensure we give the opportunity to hundreds of thousands of Australians to access new skills by retraining and upskilling them.

SABRA LANE: How close are you to getting all the states and territories on board, though?

MINISTER CASH: As I said, I've had incredibly positive discussions with the Skills Ministers and, as the Prime Minister said following the last National Cabinet, he had very, very positive discussions with the Chief Ministers.

SABRA LANE: Weeks away? Months away?

MINISTER CASH: One would hope days away.

SABRA LANE: The Government is broadening out the wage subsidy scheme to include medium sized businesses now - they weren't part of this first phase of the policy announced in March. Was that an oversight?

MINISTER CASH: No, not at all. The focus of the policy in March was very much on what we can do for small businesses in Australia. As you know they were really hit hard, many had to close their doors overnight and just didn't have the capacity without the wage subsidy to keep their apprentices and trainees on.

I am very, very pleased though that we are able to announce today that the package, the JobTrainer Skills Package does include the additional $1.5 billion to expand the wage incentive, to help keep apprentices and trainees in work. It will now be available for medium businesses with less than 200 employees; for apprentices employed as at the first of July 2020.

What you will now see across Australia is around 180,000 apprentices, and 90,000 small and medium businesses that employ them will now be supported. And, of course, the program has been extended for six months now, through to the end of March 2021.

SABRA LANE: As you mentioned, the scheme is now being extended for another six months - to March next year. What happens then? Is the assumption that the businesses will be able to pay 100 percent of the wages by then?

MINISTER CASH: Well, the economy is reopening and that is a good thing. Businesses are getting back into business, that is a good thing. The Government has always said it will monitor the situation carefully. We have made a decision that ongoing support is required for apprentices and trainees and that is why we are providing this additional $1.5 billion. We want to see businesses have that capacity to keep their apprentices and their trainees on the job. That's where we want them, on the job with those businesses, and that's what this wage subsidy will do.

SABRA LANE: Sure. And many apprenticeships do run for three to four years. Should March come next year, and bosses find that they need additional help, could there potentially be more additional to help and further subsidies to help with the costs?

MINISTER CASH: Well, there already are a number of wage subsidies out there that businesses are able to access. Some businesses, as you know, are actually accessing JobKeeper, and their apprentices will actually be on JobKeeper. There are some though that will access the supporting apprentices and trainees measure. In fact, to date we've had around 46,500 employers who have applied for it, and that's covering almost 82,000 apprenticeships and traineeships. The Government has made a decision though that we need to extend that support further, and that is why we have announced the additional $1.5 billion to expand the wage incentive - to help keep apprentices and trainees on the job, which is where we want them.

SABRA LANE: The Treasurer admitted earlier this week, that the effective unemployment rate is around 13.3 per cent. But, at the moment, it doesn't include people who've given up looking for work and it doesn't count those on JobKeeper who were working zero hours. What is your advice to those people who've lost their jobs in industries that might structurally change as a result of the pandemic?

MINISTER CASH: Certainly, there's an opportunity with the JobTrainer Skills Package to enter into new areas, to gain those new skills by retraining and upskilling. The really important thing with the JobTrainer Package is that we are working with the states and territories to ensure that more Australians have the chance to reskill or upskill to fill the jobs on the other side of the crisis. That is why it is so important to have the National Skills Commission working with individual states and territories to identify, in their labour markets, what the areas of demand are and fund both courses as appropriate.

SABRA LANE: What's the plan-B if we don't get a vaccine next year and outbreaks persist? How long can Australia persist in shutting down parts of the economy without long term damage?

MINISTER CASH: Well, I think the Federal Government has made their position very, very clear. It's costing Australia around $4 billion, a week. That is why our position is that we do need to reopen up the economy in a COVID safe manner. We've never gone for an eradication strategy - we have always gone for a suppression strategy. The key for all of us now - because we don't know, we just don't know when that vaccine is going to be available - is to live in a COVID safe manner. For businesses to reopen, to know what their obligations are in relation to having their premises COVID safe, for all Australians to abide by what we need to do on a daily basis to live in a COVID safe manner. As a Government, we have shown, we have the capacity to respond. We will respond in an efficient manner, but we'll also monitor the situation and make announcements as appropriate.

SABRA LANE: Minister, thanks for joining AM, this morning.

MINISTER CASH: Great to be with you, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: That’s Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.