The Australian federal government this week launched an A$837 million (C$715 million) program to ease the skills crisis.

The main targets of the program are high school dropouts in need of Year 12 qualifications or vocational training to get a job.

As part of the program, the government will hand out skills vouchers worth A$407 million over five years to fund literacy, numeracy and vocational training for workers over 25 who do not have Year 12 certificates.

The vouchers will provide up to A$3000 from January 1, 2007 for certificate courses at technical colleges.

Priority for the vouchers will be given to the unemployed.

Courses approved for the program are those where skills are lacking, such as IT.

Prime Minister John Howard flagged the extension of federal funding to ease the skills shortage last month when he said people now need flexible and continuing training during their working lives.

Howard said job growth was strong with the unemployment rate at a 30-year low, particularly in Western Australia where there is a resources boom.

Job vacancies currently stand at 155,000 and the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. It is 3.6 percent in Western Australia.

As businesses have tried to meet labor and skills shortages, particularly in the IT sector, the number of 457 visas for foreign workers rocketed to 58,140 in the first 10 months of this year.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley, in opposing the increased use of 457 visas, has repeatedly called for more training and programs to support local workers.

But Human Services Minister Joe Hockey defended the use of 457 visas when local workers are unavailable.

“When you go to country towns and speak to local businesses where the unemployment rate is as high as 8 percent, employers are crying out for skilled and unskilled workers,” Hockey said.

“If employers cannot find someone to do a hard day’s work then they have to go somewhere to get workers.”

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