Controversy-hit TAFE SA has brought in an independent public relations firm to handle the fallout of the Weatherill Government’s decision to remove Government subsidies for a raft of private providers.
The decision came under renewed criticism today in light of SA’s spiralling 8.2 per cent unemployment rate, with youth unemployment stagnant at 21.9, more than two per cent above the national average.
A recent NCVER report suggests more that 41 per cent of students in subsidised vocational training are young people, but the Opposition says the 81,000 enrolments funded this year represent the lowest number since records began.
Training firms have been up in arms about the decision to ditch the Skills For All scheme in favour of WorkReady, shifting the vast bulk of subsidised training places to TAFE at the expense of the private sector.
The Liberals raised questions about whether TAFE is capable of dealing adequately with a larger volume of students, given recent cutbacks. They have obtained documents under Freedom Of Information that appear to confirm TAFE’s readiness to sell off its Tea Tree Gully campus, while InDaily reported last month that a sprawling, state-of-the-art campus at Coober Pedy only employs three full-time staff.
In response to queries on that issue, TAFE SA sent the following statement: “TAFE SA offers a wide range of learning options across its network including courses offered by online, face-to-face and through blended training.
“Flexible training means TAFE SA can offer additional courses as required, subject to local demand.”
But subsequent, specific inquiries were handballed to prominent PR firm Michels Warren, which provided a more fulsome response: “TAFE SA delivers substantial face-to-face training in Coober Pedy and surrounding areas, including Oodnadatta …TAFE SA also has more than 80 courses online that are available to residents.”
Michels Warren chose not to comment when asked how and when it became involved, and how this reflected on TAFE’s in-house operations.
Opposition spokesman David Pisoni said the situation reflected “the depth of the problems Labor’s complete mismanagement of vocational training has caused”.
“Fixing Labor’s jobs and training crisis will need more than just outsourcing public relations management,” he said.
Pisoni revealed correspondence between TAFE’s director of procurement and the City of Tea Tree Gully, quoting costs for leasing out the local campus, in whole or in part, to the council.
He also writes: “With respect to the council purchasing (the site) I will discuss with my colleague in the Dept for State Development.”
However, the council’s director of organisational services replies in another email that “council considered the TAFE site … and resolved that it does not wish to pursue leasing or purchasing options”.
Business SA chief Nigel McBride urged the Government to reconsider its skills training strategy, given “exploding youth unemployment at a time when we’ve seen record low apprenticeship numbers”.
TAFE’s PR gambit is not the first time communications strategy for a political troublespot has been outsourced.
Last year, media and public relations for an ongoing investigation into chemical contamination in Clovelly and Mitchell Parks were hived off to a unit in SA Water, after the Environment Protection Authority’s communication process was roundly criticised.
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