Apprentice numbers have crashed and both major parties are blaming the other.
Labor says the system is in crisis, with the number of apprentices halving in Sydney and Adelaide between 2013 and 2015.
Apprenticeships have dropped by 40 per cent in Brisbane and nearly as much in Melbourne, education department figures show.
“We need a government who’s not incompetently mismanaging the collapse of the apprenticeship system,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told reporters on Tuesday, labelling the figures disturbing.
When Labor was voted out of government in September 2013 there were 415,000 people in apprenticeships.
At the end of 2015 there were 278,600 – a drop of about a third.
“Not every young person’s going to go to university or wants to go to university,” Mr Shorten said.
“We need tradespeople in this country. We need our apprenticeship system.”
But the government says the latest numbers follow cuts to programs supporting apprentices Labor made when it was in power.
“Fast forward two or three years and the lag effect of the significant drop that occurred on their watch is playing out,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said.
“We have made significant efforts to turn the situation around and already we can see the green shoots of increases in commencements.”
Labor has promised it if wins Saturday’s election it will mandate a set proportion of apprentices make up the workforce on large government projects and will set up new pathways into trades for jobless people.
The number of people starting apprenticeships since the coalition came into power in 2013 had risen by 35 per cent, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Brisbane.
Strong economic growth was the biggest driver of decisions to hire apprentices and young people, he said.
“If the business feels it is growing and its prospects are good … it will bring on people that are inexperienced, young people that may take more time to mentor and so forth.”