The Electrical Trades Union has lashed out over safety concerns for thousands of apprentice electricians, after one of Australia’s largest training providers, Careers Australia, admitted it had engaged in “unconscionable conduct” in recruiting under-qualified students in some of the nation’s poorest areas.
On Monday, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission won a court-enforced order that compelled Careers Australia to repay $44 million in debt for students who had been signed up to courses they believed were free or who had been lured through inducements such as iPads.
The order has threatened the expansion plans of Careers Australia, with controversy surrounding its recruitment practices in the scandal-plagued private college sector hampering its efforts in its separate apprenticeships arm.
Master Electricians, the largest trainer of electricians in the country, signed a contract with Careers Australia in October to deliver training to thousands of the nation’s future electricians.
By March, the company was training more than 3500 apprentices across four states, including 1000 electricians, according to an email from Careers Australia managing director Patrick McKendry.
Mr McKendry resigned last year as one of the federal government’s top vocational education advisers so that an investigation into the provider’s recruitment practices could be completed.
On Tuesday, Electrical Trades Union national apprentice officer Mark Burgess said that he had little confidence in the training that was being delivered and called on Master Electricians to sever its ties with the training organisation.
“These people [Careers Australia] have behaved disgracefully,” he said. “They preyed on vulnerable people, saddling them with debts for courses they were unlikely to complete, misleading them about the nature of the courses and offering what were essentially bribes to sign up to courses.
“I have no confidence in their ability to administer training in a high-risk trade, and Master Electricians should terminate their agreement immediately.”
Former Careers Australia student Ryan Nilsson said he had concerns about the quality of training being delivered by the provider when he did a certificate IV with the company in 2012.
The company specialises in mixing classroom and on-site learning with online modules.
“The online training was very poor,” he said. “A lot components that I was doing were not practical at all. It sort of led to a general dumbing down of training across the sector.”
It is understood that the internal systems of Careers Australia first alerted the company to the recruitment practices of third-party brokers. The company subsequently self-reported the infringements to the ACCC and has now repaid the $44 million owing to the regulator.
A spokesman said the company was proud of its relationship with Master Electricians.
“Our partnership with Master Electricians Training provides real industry training, in an innovative and industry relevant way to the many Australians pursuing a career in this vibrant sector,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Master Electricians said it had no intention of discontinuing its relationship with Careers Australia.
“We have every confidence that Master Electricians Training will continue to deliver the highest quality, industry-standard training for the electrical industry going forward,” she said.