This is the essence of the question raised in a recent NCVER report. It notes that ‘while skills development has long been a focus of policy-makers, ensuring the use of those skills has received much less attention.’

Ensuring effective use is made of existing skills leads to ‘increased productivity, higher levels of staff satisfaction and retention, and maximising the return on investment in skills development,’ the report suggests.

The report

Entitled ‘Skills utilisation in the workplace: the other side of the coin’ and authored by NCVER’s Tabatha Griffin, Kristen Osborne and Patrick Lim and the University of Melbourne’s Jan Kabátek, the report:

‘investigates skill underutilisation in Australian workers by examining patterns of over-skilling and over-qualification and the pathways of people into jobs where they are over-skilled. It also examines what businesses are doing, if anything, to maximise skill usage.’

It does this by analysing data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey and has a focus on two industry sectors: manufacturing, and early childhood education and care. The researchers also used interviews with employers from these two industry sectors to help explore ‘what high performing organisations are doing to understand the skills of their workers and what, if any, mechanisms are in place to maximise skills utilisation.’

What did they find?

The authors report that around 19% of Australian workers believe that they are not using all of their skills at work. In addition, they found that about 35% of workers are overqualified or over educated, potentially contributing to this level of skill underutilisation.

It depends on the type of job you have, though. They found that ‘high-skilled, complex jobs provide more opportunity for workers to draw on a broader range of their skills than low-skilled jobs.’

When they looked at the two industries of focus, they found that:

‘Employers in the early childhood education and care sector believed that all employees were using their skills. Analysis of HILDA data, however, showed that around 16% of workers in selected occupations from that sector reported they were not using all of their skills.’


‘Employers in the manufacturing sector were less confident that employees were using all of their skills, depending on the specific occupations considered. The HILDA Survey shows that around 14% of workers in selected manufacturing occupations report that they are not using all of their skills, with the highest level being metal engineering process workers (31.3%).’

Employers believe that skills utilisation is important for staff satisfaction and retention, but there appear to be very few formal mechanisms in place in the case study organisations for understanding workers’ skills and ensuring their optimal usage. Some of these mechanisms included performance reviews or more informal interpersonal processes. The researchers report that ‘where mechanisms were used, they tended to be aimed at understanding skills needs, rather than ensuring skills utilisation.’

Finally, employers weren’t sure whether support from government or others would help them to be more active in utilising the skills of their employees. Most appeared more concerned to put a higher priority focus on skills needs and development, including financial support for training.

If you want more, there is also a support document which provides a literature review which is in addition to the primary report.