Recent research by the University of Sydney has found that many trade apprentices are living on a wage that falls below the poverty line, with many wages barely higher than the unemployment benefit.


The Electrical Trades Union commissioned the university’s Workplace Research Centre to prepare a report on the work, wages and living standards of electrical apprentices as part of Fair Work Australia’s review of modern awards.


The report found that electrical trade practitioners are enjoying unprecedented demand in the wake of the country’s skill shortage, only 60 per cent of people who commence training will complete it, thanks in part to deteriorating pay and conditions of apprentices.


"Back in the 1950s the typical apprentice was around 15 years of age and lived with their parents. Historically, it was thought that apprentices should be paid as a percentage of a qualified tradesperson's wage to compensate for their lower productivity and the time needed for on the job training," says Hanna Schutz, a Research Analyst from the Workplace Research Centre.


"Today's modern apprentice electrician has most likely completed high school with a background in mathematics and sciences, and is at least 18 years old. More than a quarter of those commencing training in a trade are 25 or older. Apprentices are now more likely to be adults with families of their own, rather than dependent children," she says.


The report shows that first year wage of apprentices can be as little as $225 per week, meaning that they are highly dependent on their parents’ generosity to achieve an acceptable standard of living.


The research also shows that school leavers who engage directly in paid work and achieve a junior wage can expect to earn $40 to $70 more than a first year apprentice. The WRC has warned that without adequate pay, the skill shortage in this area will continue to grow.


"Beginning an apprenticeship is not only initially much less attractive than other pathways, but completing training requires apprentices to endure sustained period of relative deprivation before rewards become comparable with those of their peers," says Professor John Buchanan, Director of the WRC and a co-author of the report.


"Our research shows that relative earnings and lower standard of living are likely to lead to continuing difficulties in recruiting apprentices and to poor rates of completion."