John Howard’s suggestion that young people should drop out of school in Year 10 and get a trade is both bad advice and an indication that, on this as on many other issues, Howard hasn’t updated his world view since the 1950s. As Tim Dunlop says, it’s unlikely anyone in the government is giving this advice to their own kids.
Howard’s advice is exactly that given by many working class parents to their sons in the 1950s and, at the time it worked pretty well. It is only since the 1980s that the problems have emerged for older workers with limited education and obsolete skills. Parents in the 1950s can scarcely be blamed for failing to foresee this, but Howard has no such excuse.
In today’s world, car mechanics are increasingly required to debug computer programs, and virtually everyone with a job has to deal with substantial volumes of (literal or digital) paperwork. This is one reason why the “sitting next to Sally” apprenticeships Howard is so fond of have increasingly been replaced by TAFE courses. For practical purposes, the skills of a Year 10 dropout are not adequate for these courses.
Even if, in the current labour market, it would be possible to get a trade with a Year 10 education, it would still be a bad idea in the long run. Skills become obsolete and replacing them requires the kind of flexibility acquired from education.
These 1950s attitudes have translated into disastrous policies regarding post-secondary education. The number of Australian students starting undergraduate degrees has barely changed since 1996 (I think it may actually have declined in the last few years). And despite a lot of rhetoric, the TAFE system is in a dreadful mess, which can be traced back, in the end, to inadequate funding.
There’s a lot of justified concern about inadequate investment in infrastructure. But an even bigger problem under this government has been declining investment in human capital.
fn1. In saying this, I don’t mean to adopt the Keating sneer about the 1950s. There were a lot of positive features of the 1950s, in particular full employment, and the associated fact that someone with a Year 10 education could leave school and walk into a reasonably well-paid job. But wishing won’t bring these things back.
fn2. Although I was aware of this in theory, I still got a mild surprise when I was talking to a guy at the service desk and he mentioned that some problem with my engine would probably go away by itself when they ran the software upgrade that went with my routine service.
fn3. Admittedly, there are plenty of casual jobs (for example, in the fast-food industries) that are designed not to require this kind of thing. But, with rare exceptions they don’t provide any real route to permanent jobs on decent pay.