Each year NCVER releases a discussion paper in advance of its No Frills conference which was held recently. This year, it has focused on the issues related to “meeting current skill needs and preparing the workforce for ongoing change” coupled with the resilience VET needs “to absorb disturbance and reorganise during change” while still remaining true to itself and its missions.
As this paper notes, frequent disruption “is an ever-present tension in the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector,” most recently manifested in the COVID-19 pandemic. Reform and change are just as present too. An article in the last issue of VDC News entitled ‘The future of jobs’ highlighted other disrupters, including “advances in technology [e.g. big data, cloud computing and AI] and the transition to a cleaner/greener economy.”
Being resilient involves four capacities, the paper suggests: (1) being able to adapt to future shocks and stresses, (2) survive by withstanding disruptions and bouncing back better than before, (3) thrive to significantly improve people’s quality of life and finally, to (4) embed resilience thinking into institutions and ways of working.
Adapting and surviving
The paper points to VET’s role in grappling with addressing not only “increasing demand for skilled workers in many occupations” such as health professionals, technicians and trade workers but also helping enable job mobility. In addition, VET can help to address issues related to “longer-term economic recovery and problematic gaps in the jobs and skills market.”
Adaptability also included moving rapidly to the provision of online and blended delivery and the development of new training programs to meet emerging and immediate needs. Thus,
“Training providers effectively developed and/or reorganised delivery and adjusted their broader operational practices in order to continue training students and remain financially viable.”
The paper points out that there were also “quick, strategic policy interventions by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments.”
RTOs developed their resilience, and after a downturn, student numbers rebounded. Thriving also means reshaping the training package model to deliver what the paper terms ‘multi-layered skills’ that combine “a combination of technical skills and the ‘creative, future-looking’ skills.” The paper points out to a European Commission argument that “workers who can combine technical skills with more person-oriented or ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, customer service, collaboration – and even empathy – are highly sought after.” Thus, sector resilience is not just about skills adaptability but about psycho-social adaptability and the capacity for a mindset of transformation.
“Debates on how to develop, deliver and assess this necessary combination of technical and non-technical, person-oriented skills are ongoing,” the paper says – but need to be addressed to enable the sector to thrive and survive in the longer term. This may mean questioning our present approach to competency-based training. This notion was also something there was a lot of talk about at ‘No Frills’.
Other issues relating to ‘thriving’ include the effective recruitment, initial and ongoing training and development of VET’s teachers and trainers, the paper suggests. Thriving also requires the development and implementation of short VET courses and micro credentials “for [rapidly] upskilling the Australian workforce and for developing workers with well-rounded, comprehensive skill sets.”
Finally, thriving relates to “tackling entrenched disadvantage to skill Australia’s workforce,” including the long-term unemployed, women, and people with disabilities. VET has an important role to play in this process because “ultimately, there is an opportunity for the VET sector to support a more diverse range of participants through training and into jobs, and not merely because of the gaps in the market that need filling.”
According to the paper, embedding means “addressing equity issues to skill Australia’s workforce.” This not only involves what VET needs to do, but what is also needed in the broader Australian society because:
“Ultimately, equity is complex, and embedding inclusive practices into Australia’s workforce will require targeted, collaborative efforts between policymakers, trainers and employers.”
Embedding also involves RTOs thinking hard about how they develop and implement holistic vocational programs. This may also involve thinking harder about reorganising their operational practices, including the ways in which delivery and its associated teaching, learning and assessment processes take place. This will also require a rethink on our approaches to teacher preparation and ongoing development to ensure that they have the capabilities necessary to develop an Australian workforce capable of ongoing change.