THE AUSTRALIAN Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) has welcomed the Federal Budget for 2014-2015 as “an important first step in improving Australia’s fiscal sustainability and laying the foundation for long-term economic growth.”

APPEA chief executive David Byers said the Budget announcements spread the burden of increasing Australia’s competitiveness and attractiveness for global investment among the community and the economy.

“There is no simple or single solution that will ensure that Australia captures a new wave of growth and prosperity,” he said.

“Securing economic growth in an ongoing and sustainable manner will require us to focus as a nation on enhancing our productivity performance by removing unnecessary regulations, freeing up firms and workers to respond flexibly in a changing market, and to promote a culture of innovation.”

The next phase of oil and gas projects would play an important role, Mr Byers said, adding that Australia’s competitiveness and attractiveness as a place to do business would determine whether these projects went ahead.

Among the new measures introduced was a $476 million investment in the Industry Skills Fund, which Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said would put a new focus on delivering the skills directly sought by employers.

Mr Macfarlane said the fund would deliver close to 200,000 targeted training places and training support services over four years, though he acknowledged that 10 programs would be phased out during the transition.

The fund will complement the Trade Support Loans scheme which will offer loans of up to $20,000 over the life of an apprenticeship – targeting occupations on the National Skills Needs List such as plumbers, diesel mechanics, electricians and fitters.

While they will be spread over the four years of an apprenticeship, the loans will be repayable once apprentices start earning “a sustainable income”.

That threshold is a wage of above $50,000, Mr Macfarlane said in a subsequent statement, the same level as the existing Higher Education Loans Program for university students.

“An average apprentice will start making loan repayments around 3 years after successfully completing their apprenticeship,” he said.

“The average time to pay off the full loan amount, with the 20 per cent completion deduction, will be 5 years after repayments start – or 8 years after completing their apprenticeship.”

These loans replace the Tools for your Trade payment initiative, which were tax exempt cash payments of up to $5,500 for apprentices to assist with the purchase of relevant tools and the costs of their training.

Another new measure will see eligible employers receive $3,000 if they hire a full-time job seeker over the age of 50 who was previously unemployed for a minimum of six months and employ that person for at least six months.

Other payments will be made after 12 month, 18 month and 24 month intervals.

Randstad employment analyst Steve Shepherd welcomed the move but added that busineseses would need to ensure they could retain and engage such workers.

“Part of this will involve offering tailored working options and flexible working arrangements, rather than a full stop at retirement, to ensure they retain their top talent for many years after the average workforce tenure,” he said.