Lisel O’Dwyer has been busy lately! In this paper she looks at how businesses have responded to the pandemic and the extent to which innovation was an element of their response.

Three industries are case studied:  manufacturing, healthcare and hospitality and tourism. It also looks at the implications for VET.

Innovating or adapting in response to COVID?

This paper, ‘The impact of COVID-19 on industry innovation, skills and the need for training’ was published in July this year. Innovation is defined in the paper as “the introduction of a new or significantly improved good or service; operational process; organisational/managerial process; or marketing method.” (This is the ABS definition, by the way!)  The project had the premise that a sudden widespread change — like the current pandemic — might require new or flexible skills in the short-term. This project hypothesised

“that securing the skills for the new tasks associated with the innovations and adaptations resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic could be important for the survival of individual businesses, employment and economic recovery.”

It also asked, “whether the vocational education and training (VET) sector assisted them to equip their staff for these changes.”

What she found was that “most of the businesses that were interviewed altered their usual operations in response to COVID-19 with the resultant initiatives most commonly described as adaptations (often imposed changes) rather than innovations.” However,

“Barriers to innovation during the pandemic included a lack of financial resources, limited innovation options and the conservative nature of their sector, as well as survival of the business being a higher priority. A lack of skills or inability to access training was not identified as a barrier to innovation.”

Some businesses were forced to cut staff, especially in tourism and hospitality as well as some parts of manufacturing. Circumstances were different in aged care, however, as they required additional workers, “due to high rates of absenteeism and illness amongst staff.” Some parts of manufacturing and hospitality also seized opportunities to pivot their businesses, for example manufacturers of fashion clothing pivoted to manufacturing personal protective clothing and restaurants to the provision of home-delivered fine-dining ingredients and meals ordered online.

Other ‘key messages’ from the study were that “a limited amount of training was required for the innovations or adaptations made, with most staff able to transfer existing skills to any new tasks. Where training was undertaken, however, “it was mostly unaccredited and done informally on the job or via free online training (from government, industry associations or vendor websites). Where accredited training was used, such as in the aged care sector, it tended to be conducted online.” However, there were still requirements for real work placements and these could be problematic during the pandemic.

Some of those providing input to the project suggested that VET was “irrelevant to their needs.” Others felt it could be doing a better job, especially by becoming “more agile or responsive to the conditions and provide training of short duration.” Thus, for some there was “a strong preference for short intensive courses or micro-credentials, which enabled businesses to be responsive to rapid change.”

Not all felt this way, though, with “some concerned about how such an approach would address enduring skills shortages.”