This week The Conversation added more fuel to a thriving narrative that says there’s a crisis in apprenticeship participation in Australia.

For our part, we have been pouring over NCVER’s 2014 apprentice statistics for our inaugural and soon-to-be-released 2015 Apprentice Annual. We’re finding that the picture is not as grim as some are painting, at least as far as Queensland’s construction industry goes.

In this week’s article we want to highlight a systematic problem in the way apprentice numbers are reported. The piece in The Conversation is just the latest example. It reports a 20% drop in commencements and completions over the last 12 months, joining the ‘system-in-crisis’ chorus.

The first thing to say is that the 20% figure is completely true. But this is an absolute number reported without any context.

Apprentice numbers tend to fluctuate with economic conditions. And so they should. That’s the point of a demand-driven training model – training isn’t offered unless there’s a realistic prospect of employment. It’s the advantage our model has over more supply-driven models like the university system. Things being equal, a training system that is tightly coupled to broader economic conditions will allocate new workers to jobs more efficiently than one that is less so.

One implication of the demand-driven model is that fluctuations in apprentice numbers won’t reflect the health of the system any more than raw numbers of disease reflect the health of a population. Epidemiologists understand that unless you put disease numbers in the context of the population—they prefer ‘cases per 100,000 people’—you’re not actually saying anything meaningful about the prevalence of disease.

So it is with the apprenticeship system. There is every chance that a drop in apprentice numbers simply reflects the ebb and flow of the broader economy. It may actually be a sign that the system is working efficiently to supply just enough skills to meet the needs of industry. What is for certain is that declining apprentice numbers are not, on their own, evidence of a system in crisis.

Our preference is to present apprentice numbers on a per capita basis, where the ‘capita’ is the overall population of workers in the economic sector we’re studying. So when we report Queensland construction apprenticeship trends, we express the numbers per 100 Queensland construction workers. We also report our numbers over a ten year period to keep things in proper historical perspective, and we put everything in the context of how the industry as-a-whole is performing.

When you approach the data like this, quite a different picture emerges. We will be releasing our detailed analysis shortly in our 2015 Apprentice Annual, but here are three of the headline outcomes.

Demand for apprentices in Queensland’s construction industry is consistent and strengthening. As the chart below shows, there has been a 50% increase in the number of new apprentices the industry has been willing to take on over the last decade.

Queensland’s construction apprentice intake compares well to other industries. The next chart shows that construction took on more apprentices in 2014 as a proportion of its workforce than other major Queensland industries.

Queensland has outpaced most other states (only bested by ACT) in terms of growth in the intake of construction apprentices over the last decade. Although it needs to be noted that Queensland’s growth is coming off a lower base than most states.