Sitting alone on a Wednesday in an eight-room training centre that used to be bustling with students, consultants and trainers chief executive of Green Business Audit and Training Steve Kostoff says that massive cuts to green skills training are undermining the capacity of the sustainability sector.
Speaking by phone from his Adelaide office, Kostoff says that training for sustainability skills, sustainable business, carbon management, retrofitting and energy efficiency will all be defunded in South Australia from 30 June.
And it’s a story playing out across other states also, with fees now between $2900 and $5000 for a Certificate IV in NatHERS and no funded courses available in carbon management or business sustainability.
“We are just despairing at where we are at [in the training sector]. After building this for the past 10 years or more, the federal government and even respected state governments are just not interested in sustainability,” Kostoff says.
“I think about the gaps that are appearing in expertise, mentoring and business development.”
India gets it
He has recently returned to Australia after being in India as part of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership program and was “stunned” by the enthusiasm he saw in India for putting sustainability into practice.
It’s a nation in catch-up mode in terms of development, and the government and NGOs together are pouring resources into projects and training.
“There is far more opportunity for our education services in India, not just because there are more people, but there is a warm agenda [in terms of sustainability], and the government is supporting that agenda.
“Why aren’t we leading? We have got to ask that question.”
Kostoff says the TAFE and university sectors have also “been slaughtered” and are suffering the same kind of funding cuts that are hammering the Vocational Education and Training sector he works in, and that he has “lost a lot of valued colleagues around Australia.”
The biggest frustration however is the impact reduced green skills training will have more broadly across the community.
“It’s taken us a generation to go beyond just recycling cans and bottles to understanding the principles of sustainability,” he says.
“And just as we were breaking through – since about 2009-2010 – and we were creating education pathways and new jobs, it’s now fallen down. We’re not even plodding.”
The lack of trained workers is likely to impact on the effective implementation of state-based energy efficiency programs, like the Residential Energy Efficiency Scheme in South Australia or the NSW Energy Savings Scheme.
“All those programs required constant top up with skilled workers and managers, because some people will work on those programs for a while and then go and develop their own business such as LED lighting.
“My fear is that if we remove all the funding, people will be reluctant to pay substantial fees for [the] education.
“We’ve removed some work pathways, slowed down potential candidates and it will stifle the development of green collar jobs.”
His organisation was training 200 people a year for the state government’s home energy auditing program, and 300 a year for the retrofitting program.
Graduates kept the programs “fresh and buoyant and created an impetus to go beyond state government programs and start their own business, and maybe even end up employing some people themselves”.
Other training programs the centre ran were the Certificate IV in Business Sustainability, and the Certificate IV in Carbon Management. 2600 people have trained in energy-efficiency retrofitting since 2010.
Kostoff says it is not just lack of state or federal funding affecting the VET sector, companies are also not sending people for green skills training.
“Commercial support has cooled off, even though climate change is hot. Companies have no need now for carbon managers or sustainability managers, as there is no longer a directive around compliance.
“We are at a crossroads – an intersection of lack of government funding, low energy [for action] and lack of political strategies.”
His organisation is shortly running the last funded course in home sustainability assessment it can be sure of providing. After 30 June, Kostoff says he is not sure what courses will be on offer, as he will not charge the high fees that are required without the funding. With funding, the Certificate IV in Home Sustainability only costs a student $550.
Reductions in VET funding for green skills is not only removing potential candidates from the sustainability sector, he says, it also leading to a loss of educators that RTOs have spent many years developing the capacity of.
And, it is costing the public fair and equitable access to the kinds of professional advice and services graduates deliver, and reducing the ability of governments to expand any energy efficiency or sustainability programs.
“There is such a massive depletion in the whole green skills sector,” Kostoff says. This also includes the thousands of jobs lost in the renewable energy sector over the past two years, and also jobs across fields like water resources.
If you’re in a susty job, stay there because there’s no one coming up behind you
“The people who are in sustainability jobs now need to stay there, because there is no-one coming up after them,” Kostoff says.
“Everything we are doing right now in Australia is at odds with international progress and policy directions. The energy for embracing sustainability that exists internationally has been squashed in Australia.
Equally embattled colleagues in the sector assess the likely recovery of the green skills sector to be at least two years away or more, Kostoff says, as even if a new federal government is elected, it will take at least six months for a new, greener government to rebuild programs and policies.
But he’s still there, sitting in the training centre and hoping the policy directions and funding picture may somehow improve – because hanging in there matters in the bigger picture.
“While the last of the last are still holding the doors open, it’s a sign to the public that green skills and environmental management are important,” Kostoff says.
VET under review
The VET sector is currently under review, with federal policies and state policies both aiming for a fully-contestable funding model that is responsive to industry demand.
In NSW, the Smart and Skilled program offers a limited number of funded green skills courses however they all have fees ranging from about $2290 for the Certificate IV in Home Sustainability Assessment to $4920 for a Certificate IV in Renewable Energy.
In Queensland, there are no funded green skills courses, and the only funded course in Victoria is focused on the needs of the manufacturing sector, the Certificate IV in Competitive Systems and Practices.
The Victorian course is also the only Certificate IV green skills course in any state where students can access the VET FEE-HELP scheme and defer fee payments until their income reaches a similar threshold to the one for the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. All other TAFE courses require full payment prior to commencing the course.
VET FEE-HELP had been restricted to courses for diploma-level or above, however a trial is being carried out targeting Certificate IV training in priority areas identified by the various states such as aged care, construction and telecommunications.