Last issue we highlighted T-shaped graduates as one of the aims of a new tertiary institution being trialled in NSW as an outcome of the Gonski and Shergold Review.

What are T-shaped skills, though, and why are they so important?

Developing a breadth and depth of skills

The top of the ‘T’ encompasses a breadth of capabilities and personal qualities, including those associated enterprise and personal effectiveness skills, along with social skills. The lower vertical part of the T is concerned with the knowledge and skills that need to be developed in vocational and academic areas. Perhaps we in VET have been concentrating on the ‘I’ bits too much if you accept what the AISC papers highlighted in this issue have been talking about? Certainly, these ‘I’ bits often get much of the attention in Training Packages, but are they really the most important bits these days? So, while graduates need a mixture of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills, maybe we do need more attention to the employability or ‘soft’ skills in the approaches VET teachers use, and what is actually assessed.

The soft ‘top of the T’ stuff

The enterprise skills are the sorts of aptitudes required by people in a successful enterprise. These include business awareness and savvy, creativity, initiative, problem solving and risk taking. The social skills include peoples’ capacities to find, make and manage networks and collaborations and include the abilities to communicate, lead, network, work in teams and display empathy. Finally, there are the personal effectiveness attributes: the personal qualities needed for success in the workplace of the future. These include things like reliability, adaptability and the ability to be reflective – coupled with personal focus and drive.

The advantages of employing the T-shaped.

T-shaped people can help build strong interdisciplinary teams in a company. They have the qualities that make an employee valuable with excellent knowledge of, and skills in, specific areas and they are also good at working with others in a collaborative way. In short, they are really desirable employees!

Teaching people to be T shaped

This gets back to the way VET teaching and learning is designed and delivered. Using project- or problem-based learning approaches is good because they can be designed in ways which reflect the reality of the way students will have to work as they are studying and when they graduate. Using approaches that emphasise effective communication and teamwork can also be really good, but that can give us a problem: how do we judge individual competence? Maybe we need to think more about using e-portfolios?

Teaching reflective practice skills and using debriefing can also help develop capabilities like creativity and critical thinking. So, here are a few tips:

  • create or adapt existing teaching and learning activities so that there is a heavy emphasis on group work, independent research, communication between peers, time management, and presentation skills,
  • place a strong emphasis on group dynamics, including the development of empathy skills which are really important in social and community service occupations,
  • use real world examples and tell or share ‘war stories’ or scenarios to help make your teaching relevant and help develop those reflective practice and continuous learning skills in learners, and
  • find ways to recognise and evaluate the level of students’ ‘the top of the T’ skills students have and maybe even how they have developed them over time.

Often using profiling as an assessment tool is a good way to recognise the top of the ‘T’, especially when the Training Packages have these key skills more embedded within other competencies rather than front and centre. And, the whole problem is that our sector does not properly value those things we do not directly assess – so maybe that needs a rethink too? How do we make judgements about the levels of the ‘top of the T skills’ students have and report that?

Various Industry Reference Committees (IRCs) have pinpointed and prioritised eleven high-level skill areas as ‘Priority skills’, but the ‘top five skills’ which were highly prioritised across all IRCs Skills Forecasts are, in order of highest to lowest: adaptability skills, collaboration skills, analytical skills, digital skills and industry and occupation skills (that is, specific skills that various IRCs have identified as being a priority for their industry, and  – no surprises – these vary from industry to industry).

The VOCED Plus website also has a Focus on Soft skills, employability and education which provides access to some resources readers may find useful. Look at two of the other articles in this issue of VDC News too!