We need change in what young people learn, and how they learn it.

There is growing interest in extending the apprenticeship model to exploit its benefits for young people and industry. In 2016 VDC News carried two articles on this topic – Government-appointed Advisory Group asks for apprenticeship system reform (31 August 2016), and Growing focus on apprenticeship reforms (7 December 2016).

Another persuasive entry to this conversation comes in a report released on 27 March by Melbourne’s Mitchell InstitutePreparing young people for the future of work (26 pages).

What needs to change, and why

The report’s authors, Kate Torii and Megan O’Connell, drawn on the outcomes of a Roundtable exchange involving educators, government leaders, policy specialists and researchers. Their collective view, despite the range of perspectives they represented, was that two changes to our education system would boost school leavers’ prospects: transforming senior secondary education, and revitalising apprenticeships.

The report sets out compelling drivers for change, including:

  • The unemployment rate of young people (15-24 year olds) averaged 12.7 per cent in 2016, up from 9.4 per cent in 2007 (when the Global Financial Crisis struck)
  • Familiar pathways to permanent jobs are less reliable. The full-time employment rate for bachelor graduates was 71 per cent in 2016, compared to 85 per cent in 2007. Around one in four bachelor graduates work in casual positions.
  • Many young people struggle to find employment in the field they studied and trained for. In 2016, only 33.2 per cent of VET graduates were employed in the occupation they trained in.

We’ve long assumed readymade links between education and work. Those assumptions are amiss. Rather than persist in organising education around rusty old verities, education systems need to change. As the report puts it, ‘there is a disconnect between the structure and focus of our education systems, and the needs of young people and the economy.’

Valuing vocational learning, and the apprenticeship model

The report unpacks the impact of impact of decisions that have subordinated vocational education to the academic learning track. The Mitchell Institute argues sensibly that VET must be on equal footing, both in school and tertiary education.

The apprenticeship model’s attraction is that it closely intertwines work and learning. It’s a platform for developing capabilities essential in workplaces, and which are as compelling for employers as knowledge and technical skills. The Institute’s capabilities shortlist includes critical thinking, problem solving, curiosity, interpersonal skills, self-regulation, entrepreneurial skills, teamwork and craftsmanship.

There’s plenty of scope beyond training that provides us with professional tradespeople like sparkies, hairdressers and carpenters. As the report pitches it, there is nothing stopping us from ‘exploring bachelor degree-level apprenticeships, or apprenticeships in emerging and growth industries such as the caring industry and professional services.’

The national conversation about broader application of the apprenticeship model is becoming livelier, and more pressing. We are moving, if slowly, from proposals to action.