Many of Australia's 450,000 apprentices would be better off flipping burgers or waiting tables, according to a new national survey of workers.
The survey completed by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and released last week, included 400 apprentices and found many on pay below the minimum wage of $589.30, and barely above the poverty line.
The union's national secretary, Paul Bastian, said Australia did not have a skills crisis so much as a training crisis, with figures from the National Centre for Vocational Educational Research showing 48 per cent of apprentices dropped out before finishing.
Once, Australia's apprentices were overwhelmingly teenagers. But there has been a surge in older apprentices over the last two decades, with almost a quarter of apprentices now aged 25 or older. In 1995, only 6 per cent of first-year apprentices were aged over 25.
The AMWU survey showed 66 per cent of apprentices had considered quitting their apprenticeships because of the poor wages.
And 40 per cent of the apprentices surveyed considered giving up because of a lack of proper mentoring.
Mr Bastian said the nation had to better value the skills obtained from apprenticeships, and the sacrifice workers make to get their trade skills.
''Apprentices report being paid as little as $7.60 per hour. Compare that to the $11.20 an hour you'd receive making cheeseburgers,'' he said.
A National Centre for Vocational Educational Research report showed Australia had 449,000 apprentices and trainees at the end of 2011, an increase of 2.5 per cent on the previous year.
Sabri Kosyer, 24, recently started a three-year apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at a dealership in Abbotsford.
Mr Kosyer, from Thomastown, previously worked in a factory, where he earned only marginally more than his current $15.50-an-hour wage. But he said his apprenticeship was far more rewarding than the factory, where he was ''breaking my back getting nowhere in life''.
Mr Kosyer said wages, particularly for junior apprentices, were not enough.
Getting an apprenticeship was not easy, Mr Kosyer said. ''Being an adult it was a bit challenging,'' he said, although it was helped by a three-month TAFE course that helped him gain a foothold. ''Before that no-one would give me a chance.''
The lowest junior apprentice pay rate in Australia is for hairdressers who, under the Hair and Beauty Industry Award earn $6.32 an hour - equal to an annual salary of around $12,500 before penalties.