Transcript of Best of 2022: highlights from Season 7

20 January 2023

Vocational Voices: Season 7, Episode  5

Best of 2022:  highlights from Season 7

Steve Davis (00:04)

Hello, I'm Steve Davis. In 2022, we invited expert Vocational Voices from the VET sector to share their views, stories, experiences and insights. And we are grateful they found time in their busy schedules to join us. With each episode kicking off with an interesting short snippet from a guest speaker, we thought it would be a good idea to go back through the episodes and pull out some more of the research findings for you and pull them together into a best of 2022 episode for some nice and enriching summer listening. So that's what we've created for you. And we've done it across four episodes full of short and sharp insights from each of our guest speakers. In this final episode for 2022, we'll cover off the best bits of season seven. Enjoy.

Peter Shergold AC (00:59)

We now essentially require students to stay to the end of year 12 or equivalent. If there's been a failure of public policy, I think Simon may disagree with this, it is that we have never satisfactorily articulated what or equivalent is. So what it means in most instances is we want you to stay to the year end of year 12. But if at the end of year 10, we don't think you're ATAR academic material, then in many instances those students think that the others are being privileged, their decisions are not being recorded, the same status.

Steve Davis (01:37)

Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices. The official podcast of the national ... Participation in Higher Education by school leavers has increased significantly in the last decade. VET participation has lagged by comparison. Are students headed for university accorded higher status at school than those who prefer to pursue a trade apprenticeship or a traineeship? While the general outcomes for students who participate in VET in schools is good, choosing the right VET course or VET pathway is critical as some pathways are undoubtedly better than others in terms of employment outcomes.

In this episode, I spoke with Professor Peter Shergold AC, who chaired a major review for Commonwealth state and territory ministers of education on senior secondary school pathways, looking to the future. And Simon Walker, managing director NCVER, about whether people are overestimating the impact of ATAR on a student's future career prospects and the proliferation of pathways that can be followed to find a future career. This discussion draws from NCVER research, VET for Secondary School Students Insights and Outcomes. It was published on the 14th of October, 2021. Let's kick off the discussion with Simon, describing what we mean when we say VET in schools and how it differs from the term, VET for secondary school students.

Simon Walker (03:07)

Well, the first thing I'd say is that in short, there is no difference, but there was a reason why the terminology changed. And that was a perception that the VET delivered to school students was somehow different or under a different set of standards and quality than the VET delivered to non-school students. There's probably a bit of ancient history bound up in this, not the least that schools had been offering vocational education or VOCED as it's sometimes known for many, many years prior to national recognized training becoming a quality issued under a set of standards. And there was some confusion I think early, particularly in my experience, between those vocational programs that were being delivered in schools and vocational education and training that has been standardized through national arrangements. That is largely cleared up. It is VET, is VET, is VET, is set under the same standards, under the same quality assurance programs, whether you're in a school or you aren't. But that that's a little bit of the backstory around that.

I might just add to that answer that when we talk about the data we report, we are talking about VET that is delivered to secondary school students that contributes towards their secondary school education. And that doesn't cover all vocational education and training that's delivered in schools. It's only those that are deemed to contribute towards their secondary school education. And the differences between the total number of students that we report, which is around 240,000 a year and what we think or estimate is the total quantum of VET students undertaking in schools is around 50%. So it's quite a lot of difference.

Steve Davis (04:59)

Peter, in your role as chair of the Education Council's looking to the future report, you note and I quote, "The present transition pathways presented to young adults at school are too often framed in a manner that they perceive to narrow choice and that many students believe those headed for university are recorded higher status at school than those who prefer to pursue a trade apprenticeship or a traineeship." In your opinion, do you think this might help explain why the number of school levers participating in higher education has increased significantly in the past decade while VET participation has lagged?

Peter Shergold AC (05:40)

I think it is part of the explanation. When I undertook that review, I knew quite a lot about tertiary education, vocational higher education. I didn't know much about senior secondary education. I talked to a lot of experts, but I also talked to a lot of year 10, 11, 12 students, and I've got to say I am convinced by what they told me, that intentionally or not, in most not all schools, there is a tendency to privilege certain academic roots towards ATAR. And ATAR becomes that distinguishing signpost in a way in which I think it was never intended to be. So what you have at the moment, I believe is ATAR is distorting senior secondary education in profound ways in which for most students, it looks like certain pathways, academic pathways are being privileged above vocational and training pathways. It's a complete nonsense, but that is how it's perceived.

So I suppose, Steve, I think the problem starts not almost with secondary education, it starts with what's happening in the tertiary field because students are being told at around, I don't know, 14, 15, 16, "You've got to start making choices now because when you leave school, you're going to a labor market and you can either go through higher education or vocational education." In fact, it often gets simplified. You go to uni or you go to TAFE. It's even more simplified.

And of course we know, a lot of NCVER research shows this, it's complete nonsense. Once you leave school, there are in fact a proliferation of pathways that you can follow to find your future career. But what we're doing through ATAR, we're saying, "Are you going to study for ATAR or not? Are you got to be the 50% going for higher education or not?" Now that has a disastrous effect. So what started as an administratively convenient university ranking tool is often mistaken by many parents for the school certificate themselves. They think their child is studying for ATAR and it's the school certificate. And so that is the most profoundly distortionary impact, I think.

Steve Davis (08:03)

From the work that you've been doing and just reflecting on your experience, what do you think Peter, might help our education sector emerge from what I might call the shadow of ATAR?

Peter Shergold AC (08:15)

So I think there are things we can do very specifically with ATAR. Now, a lot of people, or in fact an expert minority of people think that I welshed out by allowing in my report, ATAR to have a role. My view for what it's worth is that I think over time it is dying of its own volition. What I mean by that is what most school students and their parents don't understand is that ATAR actually only plays a relatively modest role in how students are selected for university, let alone for the non-university higher education providers. Less than half of students at university are selected predominantly on the basis of their ATAR results. So I think what you are seeing, and it's been accelerated during COVID, is increasingly universities are deciding they're going to have a variety of different entry tests. And ironically, vocational education is a key path, work experience, mature age entry, and of course many people swapping from one university to another.

So I think people are overestimating the impact of ATAR on your future career prospects. What can you do about it? What I want school students to do is study what turns them on, which is, what is their passion? If it's advanced level maths, go for it. If it's physics, go for it. If it's history, go for it. If it's ceramics, go for it. If it's a cert two or cert three, go for it, but allowing people to have that choice. There is no need to make a choice about 15, about these being the alternatives. So what I would do keeping ATAR is one of two things. I would either have more vocational or general subjects included in the ATAR calculation, or I would reduce the number of subjects included in ATAR and give students the complete freedom to choose whatever else they want to do in senior secondary education.

We now essentially require students to stay to the end of year 12 or equivalent. If there's been a failure of public policy, I think, and Simon may disagree with this, it is that we have never satisfactorily articulated what ‘or equivalent’ is. So what it means in most instances is we want to stay you to the end of year 12. But if at the end of year 10, we don't think you're ATAR academic material, then in many instances, whatever the teacher's intention, those students think that the others are being privileged. They are not their decisions. And it may be a decision not just because they can't do academic subjects, their decisions are not being recorded, the same status. Now, if of course we were preparing people for a future labor market in which in fact the number of vocationally oriented skills was substantially diminishing, then there might be some logic to it. But everything we know about the future labor market shows that a knowledge nation requires knowledge of the head yes, but also of the hand and the heart. There's no indication that's going to change in the next generation.

Steve Davis (11:48)

I do note from the NCVER research that 70% of VET in school students who were surveyed said they were the ones who decided to enroll in their VET course themselves. I'll just park that to the side be that as it may, parents are still influential figures, school counselors are influential. Should we be improving our efforts in providing them with information about pathways and careers as well as students? And what would we hope to achieve by this enterprise?

Peter Shergold AC (12:21)

Well absolutely. Look, so you have to always go careful when you talk about schools because you make these generalizations always knowing there are some absolutely brilliant schools which buck the trend. But overall, I have no doubt, and I'm talking across jurisdictions that overall, the standard career advice offered at school is pretty low, tick a box type. And to be truthful, without proper training, what does a teacher know most about? A teacher knows most about universities, that's their skill set. So we absolutely need to improve the quality of professional career advice given at schools. And indeed I think that's important because I want a kid to learn at 14 or 15 that in your future, you are going to need career advice now until you're 54 or 64, you are going to keep changing careers, getting new skills. This is going to be a part of your life.

So we absolutely, I think have to professionalize the career advice that is available both to students and to their parents. I think the other thing we need to do in career advice though is to say that the future of work is extraordinarily uncertain. There is a debate about the extent to which cognitive technologies and robotic process automation and artificial intelligence is going to change the workforce. But it will change the workforce. And it will change it in a way quite different from last century where most automation was really about the mechanization of factory type employment. What you've got now is if you like, an undermining of many professional skills. So what we should be saying to people as they are preparing for a future of work is, "You need career advice. And the one thing we can tell you is there are certain generic skills you will need."

I would like to think of how we can use schools to engage young people with the purposes of their education. I was interested in talking to students about what they had learned from maths, calculus or what they had learned from history, the foundations of the Australian constitution, and yet too rarely were able to mention the underlying skills they had learned in there, working collaboratively, solving problems, articulating arguments and so on. And I'd like them to get back to those basics as well as the English, maths and digital basics. And what I really want to do is to encourage students to engage with what it is that interests them. They don't have to make lifetime decisions by the time they're 18. That the HSC today is just one vehicle. Yes, if you do well at your HSC, that's great. Bugger up your HSC, there's a wealth of opportunities out there.

What I'd like to do is say, "Why are you doing this? What are we doing this for?" And I suppose, Steve, to emphasize, there is not one, but two reasons. Well, actually probably three reasons. First, because education will provide you with a value for the rest of your life. Whatever you are doing, it will make your life more enjoyable. The second is of course, because of securing a good job and a career within the labor market. But the third, and I think this is profoundly important when we see democratic governance under attack from without and within, is so you can become an active citizen in the future. And if you think of those things, your own personal fulfillment, your labor market prospects, your opportunities to engage as a citizen, what we should be doing is to say to the students, "And you choose to a significant extent what you do, which you think will best provide you with that outcome."

Megan Lilly (16:48)

Well, I'd have to say that I think you should start at the job or the skills and go backwards from there, because if you find the need and hopefully the demand, then you can build a real model.

Steve Davis (16:54)

Hello, and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Center for Vocational Education Research or NCVER. Both vocational education and training and higher education offer the skills, knowledge, and qualifications needed to equip students to progress their career and lifelong learning. But given the difficulty and huge cost associated in integrating VET and higher education, how do we harness the best of both sectors and maximize their benefits to students, employers, and industry?

When I spoke with Megan Lilly, executive director of AI Group's Center for Education and Training and Simon Walker, managing director NCVER, about why greater connectedness and fluidity between the sectors might be better than integration. The discussion draws from NCVER research, the best of both worlds: integrating VET and higher education, which was published on the 25th of November 2021. Megan, do you think the in quotes, different learning styles between the two pathways is a big factor here? For example, does the industry look down upon VET hands-on competency-based learning while being in awe of higher education's theoretical and academic frameworks? Or is industry fine with VET but it's social stigma that robs us of some candidates?

Megan Lilly (18:24)

Well, it's an interesting proposition, isn't it? It suggests that industry looks down on this and up to higher education. And I struggle with that dynamic or that sort of binary view of it. I mean, I think industry would hopefully be deeply engaged in both and respectfully look on and participate with them. I don't think hand skills are down and academia is up. I think we need to really move past that entire conversation and look at applied learning and more theoretical approach to learning, but that actually extend at all levels across the AQF if we have a moment of honesty. And I think that we should build the value up of all of that. So I don't accept the looking up, looking down component.

However, it is important that I do admit that there has been some stigma attached to this over time that's been pretty historically derived. And it's probably being reinforced by a lot of aspiration for future generations to have professional or white collar jobs. I think we're also beginning to move past that, but I think that we really do need to move the stigma away from any form of learning. I think learning in all its various forms is a positive thing, and it is not limited or restricted to that. You can move from different types of learning, have different progressions and change careers as many people will do over their life. So we've got to rebalance this whole question, remove the stigmas and get a better balance between knowledge, skills and applications. And I actually think the revised AQF suggests exactly that.

Simon Walker (20:21)

Yeah, I thought it might be useful just to give you some early insights and some research that we're still working our way through, but which has got to a stage where some of the early findings are coming in. And it's a study that uses a case study approach on four occupations, surveyors, childcare workers, lab technicians, and graphic designers, where we know people are employed both as VET graduates and or higher education graduates. So we're doing that deliberately to see if there are any different outcomes for those people, whether they went through a VET pathway or a higher education pathway.

And one of the, I think, early observations of that, that I found interesting and which sort of goes to the heart of your question is when we spoke to employers about, "Well how do you discriminate between the worker who graduated from either sector?" In short, they don't. They are looking at people who can do the job. And they don't have a particular view about whether someone is a university graduate or a VET graduate as long as they can perform the role. And I thought that tells a bit of a story about the demand side of employers, is that they're looking at skills.

Steve Davis (21:29)

Wow. So pragmatism.

Simon Walker (21:31)


Steve Davis (21:32)

And I just wonder, just dealing with this though, do you think we'd find grounds for a stronger argument in favor of a more integrated tertiary sector if we argue that would help people navigate a future of continuous change that's being driven by constant technological and workplace advancements, Simon?

Simon Walker (21:53)

Yeah, it goes back to that early conversation, which is ... And really Megan hit the nail on the head here, it's about the ease to which you can move between the sectors in your study program. There are too many constraints and we could talk about that for a long time here. But one of the other issues that came up in this study that I just referred to is a comment from employers. They've got to make it easier for people who, for instance, did a VET course to be able to take up some components of a university course and vice versa, in particular, how they are recognized between the sectors. And this has been an enduring issue. It goes to the heart of the AQF review, how can you do that better and easier for the individual and consequently the employer?

Steve Davis (22:39)

All right. Now you just touched on the recognition aspect and the difficulties there. I want to flip the coin because if we assume we all agree, integration is the best option, the NCVER paper, the best of both worlds integrating VET and higher education, it notes that the main barrier to integration is the time and expertise needed to map VET and higher education content. It's expensive. Is it in Australia's interest for the government to fund this mapping or are there intrinsic opportunities for building this into our system?

Megan Lilly (23:17)

Look, that would be one way to go and it's a fairly technocratic way of approaching an issue. And I would also describe it as, if we're looking at the sectors as being an iceberg and the user, whether it's an individual or an industry or company, they intersect with the bit above the water, and what this activity is part of the stuff below the water. And they don't need to see that. But I also do accept that it's expensive and time consuming and whatnot, but I also think probably a better way to go would be there are new and emerging areas of skill in our economy, there's a lot of transformation happening. And if you actually identify some of those new areas and you actually drive, whether it's integration or cohesion.

And I think it's an interesting question because integration, we don't want to lose the best of both, so we need to make sure we're getting that language right. But if you find one of these newer areas and you build new models in a new space that actually intuitively or instinctively take from both or recognize that they're separate but they're creating this new space. And I think some of the digital industry 4.0 stuff lends itself to that. We can develop some new models in that space and actually drive change in a different way because we've been trying to do it the other way for a very long time without very much success.

Steve Davis (24:44)

There's a red hot focus at the moment on micro-credentials in both VET and higher education sectors. Could this focus give us some common ground for approaching a more integrated tertiary sector?

Megan Lilly (24:57)

Well, I'd have to say that I think you should start at the job or the skills and go backwards from there. Because if you find the need and hopefully the demand, then you can build a real model. And back to Simon's last point on, couldn't find the real blended model in... you could find it on a shelf but not in practice. I think that's not suggesting it's not true for a second, but I guess that depends where you start building the model from. So we're doing some work with some companies at the moment, they're building their model from the company perspective. Now there's very large companies that can afford to do it and international companies, BAE Systems is one of them. But I think that, that's what we've got to start. You've start from the job in your skills, and then you can look at qualification outcomes and micro-credentials and anything else you might want to in that bucket. But I just think we need to get this up, I think that's where we need to start from.

Simon Walker (26:02)

Yeah. Again, I come back to this notion of whether it's about integration or whether it's making it more available that there are options for ... Micro-credentials are easier to access theoretically, and certainly less impost on time for both companies and individuals. And look, we've got a so-called micro-credentials platform or marketplace or something which has only got higher ed micro-credentials currently being promoted out there, and yet we know that VET is largely or dominated by participation in micro-credentials in a broader sense of the word. So the idea that people could be made more aware of those options and their linkages to their employment. So I absolutely agree with Megan around there's got to be a demand and there's got to be an occupational outcome or a rationale for actually doing this in the first place.

Megan Lilly (27:02)

The ultimate answer is that everyone needs to step up to the plate, which of course is an invitation for nobody to step up to the plate. So moving on from that, look, I like to think that at AiGroup here we are showing some leadership on this. Because we did the original industry 4.0 advanced apprenticeship with Siemens and others. We are now doing the Systems Engineering one with BAE Systems, which is their UK model. And we're helping them do it here in Australia starting hopefully next year with Vic Uni. But that also they're committed to doing that through their whole supply chain. So that picks up a little bit what Simon was saying about how a big company's got a distinct resource and other advantages so that there is actually a model emerging that's beyond the big companies. And we're also doing one in electrical between trade qualifications and university qualifications. So that one's just soon to unfold.

So I think there is some emerging industry leadership, which is absolutely and utterly driven by real need in the workplace. Companies don't invent projects, they have a real need and so we're helping that. But we cannot do this on our own, it's hard stuff. And really to work with the system and the sectors takes a lot of knowledge, a lot of perseverance and a lot of goodwill. So we would love to have more collaboration from state governments, commonwealth governments, regulators, any other agencies that are required because it's hard stuff but it's still worthwhile.

Well, we asked our CEOs what they're expecting in terms of finding and retaining skilled labor in 2022. And it's very clear there from that slide in front of you that 73% of them expected to have difficulty. And I think it'd be interesting if we surveyed them now. It's quite possible that this has in fact intensified. But what was really interesting is that when we asked them what they planned to do to address this challenge, CEOs recognize that there are actually no quick fixes, instead they showed a strong commitment to investing in training and development and even where the gains will be on the short term.

Steve Davis (29:18)

Hello, I'm Steve Davis and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the ... In July, 2022, the 31st annual No Frills conference was held online for the third year running due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. Along with a series of standalone presentations, three live Q&A sessions were held, and in this episode, we shared a sample of these three events. The conference theme was VET's role in transforming the future. Topics covered in the lively discussions included why business leaders are turning to education and training for solutions; the future skill needs of service-based industries; upskilling and reskilling and the impact of COVID-19 on employers and their training choices; strengthening skills pathways to work for disadvantaged youth; quality VET delivery; and VET course pathways. Speakers for that episode included Megan Lilly, Australian Industry Group. Silvia Munoz, SkillsIQ. Ian White, NCVER. Kira Clarke, Brotherhood of St. Laurence. Hugh Guthrie, Lucid Proprietary Limited. And Damian Oliver, National Skills Commission. Let's start our recap with some comments by Megan Lilly.

Megan Lilly (30:37)

Unsurprisingly though, education and training really is back in the spotlight for managers. I'm not sure that it ever left, but really the intensity around it is quite sharp at the moment. And it's a really important moment, but great responsibility for all of us. So we wanted to look into this too. And it's clear that businesses are embracing upskilling and reskilling activities in order to respond to short-term labor and skill shortages. As these pressures ease over the medium term and indeed the longer term, particularly with the return of skilled migration, digital transformation will remain a persistent driver for job-ready skilled workers. The education and training system will be the linchpin that supports Australia's growing digital economy. It will be important that workers have high quality training pathways that provide timely upskilling and reskilling. This will be essential to support displaced workers looking to get a foothold back into the economy in new occupations, different occupations or indeed merging occupations. And also important to give young people the opportunity to gain skills in areas of growing demand.

These results will require jobs and the training system to be flexible at every level. It will also challenge some of the traditional learning pathways that we've relied upon for so long. Many of them will remain good, but they will no longer be fit for purpose as the only pathway. And that not only will learning be continuous throughout the learning working journey, but the entry into new occupations will actually occur at multiple stages through life, and that we really do need to reconsider what those learning pathways in fact are.

Steve, thanks for that question. And look, first of all, I think it was actually very encouraging to see that they're actually going to focus on upskilling their existing talent, investing in the people you've got. It's a very, very healthy thing to do and it's part of building up the skill base of the nation. And a lot of what we need to do is focus on existing workers, not new entrants. And that's really the comment that I'll get to later, but about the traditional pathways. But just because they said they're going to upskill their existing workforce doesn't mean it's going to be easy. I think we actually probably know what the challenges are, but it's actually being able to meet the demand in the way that the demand wants to be met. So it will involve a lot more shorter form credentials.

Often we just use the term micro-credentials, but it's really short courses, digital badges, workshops or manner of things will fit in that mix. And they'll need to be very targeted and very timely. So we aren't just suffering skill shortages or difficulty in recruiting people, we are suffering very significant labor shortages in the country at the moment. So it's in that context that we're trying to upskill existing workers and that's going to be a very significant challenge. But just a few quick things to add to that is that we do have some poor skill mismatches in the workplace already, so we need to keep working through that. And that's not going to resolve itself anytime soon.

We also have a need for an increased level of digital literacy or digital fluency as part of just about every job across the economy. So workers and indeed managers and others, everybody will need to have increased digital capability and that will need to be developed, isn't automatic, it means some people are digital natives, but a lot aren't. And we have a perennial problem about language literacy and numeracy in our existing workforce. Very significant challenges. So there's a lot of work to be done, but if you're not going to do it now, I don't know when we're ever going to do it.

Silvia Munoz (34:20)

Well look, Steve, given the tight labor market, I agree with you at first to say yes, it is about getting humans through the door, getting humans into jobs and getting them doing the occupations. But look, in saying that, I really did want to raise the point that while supply is a critical issue for these industries, it can't be isolated from the conversation that industries are having regarding skills. So you need not only just humans, but they need to be able to have the skills to do the job that they've been employed to do. And if they don't have the skills, at least be able to learn the skills to be able to deliver that.

So I guess I've been thinking it through and there's a triage of essence on the issue. There's supply, there's skills, but there's also sustainability which is about retention of staff. So if you can get a worker in and you can keep that worker, well then that's a really important pathway and resolves in a way, some of the workforce supply issues that are happening because the industry is a focus, they're really very competitive. For example, the retail industry, tourism, travel and hospitality in the employer landscape is incredibly diverse and competitive. So there's actually employers are competing just for workers themselves.

Ian White (35:50)

Now, one of the biggest impacts generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rapid digitalization in the way that businesses deliver their products and services. In fact, Bowman and Callan found the key driving factors for workforce training across most industries, is the digitalization of work processes. Likewise, a report by the Australian industry group 2021 flags the accelerating digitalization industries as creating urgent skill in demands for employers. And they asked employers to indicate the digital areas where their employees most needed the capabilities or needed their digital capabilities increased. So they ranked basic digital skills as number one. So they were looking for their employees to have just the basic digital skills to operate in an increasing digitalized environment. Number two was cybersecurity skills, so we're looking for skills to keep company or business information or custom information staying safe. Number three was data analysis skills. So due to increased digitalization, they were collecting more data and they were looking for skills to leverage on this maybe to investigate customer trends or improve on business processes.

Kira Clarke (37:03)

And over the last 20 years, we've seen a common core set of policy levers used to drive improvement in our training system. More incentives and subsidies to promote training participation and commencements, more regulation and quality control and diversification of qualification types and modes of training. As we look to transform the future and enhance the role the training system is playing for young people in particular, we need new ways of reforming the system. And that means we need new ways of evidence making that cut through entrenched policy and system rhetoric. Because understanding the ways in which people, training products, pathways, practices and policies of our VET system interact and behave requires a diverse set of inquiry modes and ways of doing research.

Yeah, thanks for the question, Steve. You say is there a point in the future? I think the time is now. I think we already have substantial evidence that points to significant vulnerabilities that are limiting young people's access to the training and to meaningful decent, secure work. And I think addressing these effectively really requires a little bit of a mindset shift. So we often talk about young people themselves being vulnerable. And I think we need to shift to really focusing on the structural conditions of the training system and the labor market that can hold these vulnerabilities in place. So shifting from a deficit way of thinking that it's young people are the problem, to what are the structural barriers, the structural conditions, the way the training system operates that can reinforce or hold some of these vulnerabilities in place.

I'm thinking about particularly the opening address that Minister O'Connor gave yesterday, and he used this language as future proof livelihoods. So how do we get a training system that doesn't reinforce vulnerabilities but creates the conditions that remove barriers. Because young people need to have a sense of trust and faith that the training system is going to live up to its promise of providing a pathway to decent secure work. And I think at the moment, it probably sounds a bit harsh to say, but in some ways the training system is failing on that promise. So I think there's still a lot of work to be done.

I think the most significant change I would like to see is a focus on the pathway out of VET delivered to secondary schools. One of the weaknesses of it is that it is still used as a retention mechanism by schools to keep young people in using pathways and subjects that aren't aligned with job opportunities and aren't setting them up for success post-school. And I think there are other ways of building the generalist transferrable common vocational skills outside formal accredited vocational education and training. So I think there's still some work to do to differentiate technical development, setting young people up for post-school pathways as opposed to vocational learning that builds broad base for employability.

Hugh Guthrie (40:07)

What the good RTOs really try to do is build a culture of quality assurance and continuous improvement. They're about providing a good quality student experience and outcomes rather than just being compliant or regularly in a regulatory sense. Collecting and using good information is really important, and that provides the basis on which they can decide how best to improve. And the important thing is that the data they gather is often deeper, richer, and more diverse than those measures that are important or judged externally. So providers or really good providers very often have far richer data that is actually reported externally or is available to outside stakeholders. Other things that are important are things like collaborations and partnerships. And increasingly, we are seeing that trend in a post-COVID world. Working with industry and employers is very, very important as well. And finally, the recruitment, the retention and professional development of their key staff is a particularly key issue.

Steve Davis (41:27)

How much is the delivery of quality vocational education dependent upon how we teach instructors and students how to learn?

Hugh Guthrie (41:37)

Yeah, great question. Thank you, Steve. Look, a lot depends on the quality of the instructors themselves. And in part that's about their personal attributes, like their enthusiasm, their empathy for students, their organizational skills, their caring, their vocational currency, all of those are important. But it's really how they learn and develop throughout the beginning of their career and throughout the rest of their career. We know they’re time poor, we know that they're often casual staff. So while we think about what sort of qualifications they should have, and there's been considerable debate over that over the period of time, presently it's set at the cert four level, the Cert four TAE. And a lot of people will actually find it quite hard to find the time or a bit reluctant to do that qualification, don't see it as a priority. But there are arguments for higher level qualifications as well.

Damian Oliver (42:47)

The possibilities for data integration compared to the data sources that we've otherwise had available to us, particularly around surveys, they've done two things. One, they'll enable us to look at outcomes over a much longer time period. So that's actually that longitudinal aspect. The data that we presented today only had a 12 month view, but as we get more confident using the Vander dataset for example, we'll be able to look at where students get to from their training two, five, 10 years out and that will enable us to look at a much broader range of outcome.

The other thing that it does is it makes it easier for us to look at the outcomes and the experiences of vulnerable groups because survey responses overall diminish, especially with successive waves of longitudinal surveys. And that's usually especially the case for vulnerable groups because they might have less permanent addresses, they might feel more reluctant to take part in a survey. So the other advantage of working with integrated data is around vulnerable groups. And there's a third one, which is, it actually forces you in a very positive way to be more collaborative with other users and other producers of data.

Megan Lilly (44:03)

I think COVID was a factor in what we're seeing as rising incidents of people exhibiting poor mental health and struggling with resilience. I think we have to be careful to not assume it is the only factor though.

Steve Davis (44:19)

Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Center ... Aside from the health and economic impacts, the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected Australia's VET sector. The full scale of these effects, however, has just started to emerge. In what ways did the first waves of the pandemic affect the VET workforce, including trainers, resource developers and administrative staff? What changes and innovations happened. More importantly, what were the impacts on students and their practical learning, particularly those in industries with a high skill shortage?

Our guests for this episode were Jenny Dodd, CEO, TAFE Directors Australia. Brian Rungie, CEO, PEER. And Simon Walker, managing director, NCVER. We discussed the varying impacts of the pandemic as well as the COVID-19 related opportunities and challenges being faced by Australia's VET sector. And just before we play the final clips, please note the transcripts and recordings of this podcast and all four podcast episodes we've drawn from can be found on the NCVER portal, at Just look under the news and events podcast tab. We look forward to bringing you more topics and more informed discussion in 2023. Thanks for listening.

Simon Walker (45:46)

Think I'll start by saying there were some universal impacts for all RTOs, and the ones that really stood up was the switch to online delivery. That was quite dramatic and has continued and the challenges with mandatory work placements, obviously with apprenticeships and traineeships. But there are many other courses that require mandatory workplace experience as part of the training and assessment, and that was universal across all RTOs who are delivering in those areas.

In terms of the specific provider types, we found that the TAFE's, and no surprises really, the enterprise RTOs were more able to reorganize their businesses, and whilst it wouldn't say they weren't impacted, they were less impacted than compared to private providers and community providers. And probably the ones that were most impacted were the community providers, particularly when they had their outreach for disadvantaged students and in regional areas. They don't have the scale to be able to manage their business operations quickly, so they were very severely impacted throughout that. And unsurprisingly, enterprise RTOs who are delivering to their own staff could manage the swings and roundabouts a little easier than most. There were some differences within the TAFEs depending on the nature of the business and the diversity of their offerings and whether they're regional or metro. And I'm sure Jenny can offer a few insights into that.

Brian Rungie (47:10)

So PEER is an organization focuses on the construction sector. And we were very lucky that within South Australia, their shutdowns were relatively minor or they were very minor compared to Victoria. And the construction sector as a sector was identified as a high priority, so therefore a lot of the isolation and the complexity that came with that wasn't as felt by us as an organization as perhaps it might have been by others. Having said that, when you reflect back on it, there was a lot of things that we needed to work our way through. PEER as an organization had already gone to a blended or a flexible model, so we were able to pivot, to use the language, relatively quickly for that. And that meant our VET in school programs, for example, when the schools were shut down or put into isolation, we just moved our learners into an online environment and they were able to continue.

So that meant for us, we were able to complete all of our training so it didn't affect their senior school certificates or anything like that, and we had minimal additional training that we had to pull them in for. But we were lucky because we were prepared for that, coincidentally. Within the apprenticeship space, that was much more complicated. We had some employers that required vaccinations, some that didn't. Some employers where the whole site would be shut down because somebody thought they might be sick, others that just decided to push through. So there was a whole heap of worker safety obligations that were needed to think our way through as well.

Then you lay over the top of that, that for extended periods of time people were in isolation when they were a close contact to somebody else, which meant that we went through periods of time where 30% of our apprentices were either sick or in isolation, which as a business has a massive impact. But from an industry perspective, it just meant that their whole labor force was just disappearing at the drop of a hat, and it made it very hard for them to plan and to look ahead.

This is a very good question. One of the outcomes that's certainly come from the COVID and more so the government's response to it in particular with the stimulus package around the construction industry, but also things like the BAC funding and all those other types of stimulation is that apprenticeship numbers now are very strong. We've got more first year apprentices going through the system right now than we've ever had. And that's a fabulous sign. It's a fabulous response to the skill shortage that the sector's been feeling. And I think it's one of those positive aspects that's come out of the COVID response, and I think that will actually set us up for the next couple of years.

Simon Walker (49:30)

I'm going to start though with an overarching comment because we've done a lot of research around COVID over the last few years. And disentangling all the influences and impacts of COVID and trying to then separate one specific factor over another is almost impossible. So to give you an example, obviously there are impacts of lockdowns and border closures. But there's also a huge response from government around and interventions around job keeper, job trainer, apprenticeship wage subsidies and infection control regulations in the workplaces. They all conspire to give another result, so to try to pick one out of the hat is very difficult.

To go back to LSAY, and I think probably for the benefit of everybody, that stands as another acronym in the VET sector for the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth and attracts students over a 10-year period from around about age of 15 through to 25. And we've been running successive cohorts over the last 20 years or thereabouts. So we had a starting cohort of 15-year-olds in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2015. So with this particular piece of research, what we were comparing was the transitions between the ages of 19 and 20, which just coincidentally happened to be 2019 and 2020 for the 2015 cohort. And then compared them to previous cohorts and said, "Well, are those transitions different as a consequence of COVID compared to other cohorts?"

And there was a range of things that came out of the review, but to specifically answer your question, the single ... Oh by the way, the research looks at employment outcomes, training outcomes, social wellbeing, a whole range of factors, so it's not just focused on training. The single biggest difference, it was stark, was how they identified about mental health for this latest cohort. And the metrics based on this analysis we did was that for the latest cohort, the ones that were 19 and 20 during the COVID period, nearly a quarter of 20-year-olds met the criteria for probable serious mental illness. And if you compare that to the cohort that started in 2014, about 7%, so over a threefold increase. And there's other research that clearly has identified this is an issue. In terms of the attributes of those that were most impacted, being female, unemployed, not in any form of study or having no forms of social support were the ones that were the most seriously impacted there.

Jenny Dodd (52:09)

In terms of engaging with young people though, which is the essence of your question, I think some of the support structures that we do have in place in TAFE and indeed in VET more generally, the smaller learning and more supported learning environments, the opportunity to have hands-on practical applied learning experiences, I think they resonate really well for many of our young people. And I know Brian's area looks largely at construction, but certainly so do TAFEs. We do significant amount in construction and do a large percentage of the learning and electrotechnology and plumbing. Those sort of learning experiences are very important for young people in that they are working in practical ways with their teachers or they're learning guides to do things that produce outcomes. And I think that, that's an important way of engaging these young people.

The second part of that though is also how do we support our students in the blended learning environment? And that can't be ignored. And although we've all, to use your term pivoted, we've got lots more to do here to keep getting better at that part of our delivery. And I think it's a challenge that everybody is up for. We saw really fabulous innovation exhibited, but that innovation hasn't stopped. And indeed, just at the moment, and we are hearing the first week of December having this conversation, I know for a fact in a couple of states there's huge numbers of students and staff in this final period of the learning year off with COVID we’re on another bit of a wave. And so being able to make sure that students are not impacted in completing their outcomes for the year is really important. So getting better at online delivery is, I think, on the strategic direction for every take in Australia.

Brian Rungie (54:19)

So I think in that sense, as people are coming out of the COVID thing, as some of that pent up demand is there, it's creating employment opportunities all over the place. To pick up on Jenny's comment before, one of the things we have definitely noticed is that students coming out of school now are coming out with a different skill profile, for want of a better word. Two years of COVID affected schooling has meant that they have developed different types of skills. It's not necessarily better or worse, they're just different. And we're needing to respond to that.

Their learning preferences are often slightly different. They're much more technically savvy around the use of Teams and Zoom and things like that, which for my, rather age challenge workforce, has been an interesting journey for them to work their way through. Often it's the students teaching the trainers how to use Teams, and it's great that we have a culture where people are open to that. It is going to be interesting how that then flows through into the workplace. Some employers are really struggling with making that change and they're expecting it to be the way that it was. Others are grabbing it and they're just running with it and they're going to do very, very well out of it.

Jenny Dodd (55:33)

In terms of maintaining students, I think it's a bit of a double edged component to this. During COVID, we maintained students really well, and a lot of that came down to leadership and it came down to leadership, and Brian has said this right through the cohort of teachers, through the senior leaders. There was a much more authentic, if you like, way in which I think whole teams in TAFEs work together to deliver the outcome to the students. Because they were very conscious as every training provider was that the students needed their experience. And we maintained that.

But I don't want to make it all rosy because it's not all rosy. There has actually been, in particular at the start of this year, 2022, very soft demand from students in certain critical industries such as the care industry. And that could well be a reflection of what people saw on the media and what people experienced in the health industries through COVID with high levels of worker burnout, exhaustion, fatigue, et cetera.

We have never experienced intake, where TAFE does two thirds of all the training in enrolled nursing for example across the country, we've never experienced such soft demand as we experienced this year. So I think there are two parts to that story, and it is important to look at where we have high demand and age care is another one, and early childhood. There are a whole lot of other factors at play that are causing some of that soft demand, which is not just COVID. And we know that through the jobs and skills summit and the conversations around women based professions, equity of pay, et cetera. These are very important aspects to also keep in mind.

Brian Rungie (57:24)

I think the great resignation that is following the great COVID is really being driven by a whole heap of people that have been forced to sit around at home and not do very much and just reflect upon what's important to them. I don't think there's a sector that's better at retooling people than the VET space. I think we do it exceptionally well. So in that sense, I'm not sure if curiosity is the right thing as much as it is people are choosing to change the direction of their lives and they're using the VET sector as the instrument to achieve that. And I think that's exactly why we're here, and that's one of the main focuses of the system.

What we've seen anecdotally is a whole heap of people that have been quite successful in their trades and in their industry that are now coming to us wanting to go into trade training. And if you go back two years ago, it was really hard to find those people. They're still not TA qualified, and that will be the bane of my existence, but at least they're now actually interested. So there's now a surge in people that are looking to change the direction of what they're wanting to do. So I think that's got to be one of the big positive outcomes that's going to come from COVID, is that people are going to be able to sit back and ... they don't necessarily want to just keep doing what they were doing before. It's something perhaps different.

Innovation with purpose is the term that I use that innovations for its own sake is great, but it's a bit academic, what are you actually trying to achieve? What is the problem that you're trying to solve? And I think COVID is going to drive or has driven a lot of change. What will be interesting is how much of that actually sticks. And that will come back to whether or not the students and industry more broadly actually sees value in that and whether or not that value can actually be recognized and then use as a rudder in the water.

Jenny Dodd (59:12)

Brian identified that it was already there, and I think it was already there as well. I was involved in the Australian Flexible Learning framework, which was the driver for innovation in particular in terms of blended learning, which started its work in 2000 and went right through for a decade. And that was broad brush for all training providers, and we therefore were leading some of that change process. What COVID did was accelerate it. So some of the change that we had been leading, which was slow if you like, but was there, the foundations were there, COVID brought it to a head and forced an outcome. And we got teams within our TAFEs doing things that they wouldn't have done without that direct impetus to do it.

And like Brian, I call out and congratulate all the teaching teams, but also all the support teams that sat around those teaching teams from the learning design teams. In Tasmania, that team around that were supporting teachers to get online, which was a small team, they worked 24 hours a day, virtually, during those early months to enable the teachers to be able to get online. And also the administrative functions had to change because students couldn't come on campus. So that was a really big shift as well in terms of how we got students enrolled and how we made sure they were in classes. So it was a whole of organization effort. So I do think that a lot of the seeds were absolutely there in most training providers. What we did through COVID was a momentous shift in a short period of time to mainstream that across organizations.

Simon Walker (01:01:00)

Well, I agree with Jenny. It really accelerated the innovations that were already occurring. I suppose I tend to take a different view. There is a phrase, "Necessity is the mother of invention," and I think that will always be the case. Where I think there can be some push on innovation is around the policy settings. So we have a system that's governed quite tightly in some areas around policy. And I know this will be something dear to Jenny’s heart, probably Brian's as well. So we have training packages and all the design and specifications over that. There is an enduring question around the nature of and the specification levels now, is there not an opportunity to respond to what certainly providers are saying and allow more flexibility within that construct for providers to innovate?

Steve Davis (01:01:50)

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