Transcript of Skill sets: their role now and into the future

15 April 2020

Vocational Voices: Season 4, Episode 2

Skill sets: their role now and into the future

Jenny Lambert (00:04)
The number one priority for Australia, including its training system, will be to get the economy back on its feet and get people skilled and ready to perform work as quickly as the movement restrictions are lifted.

Steve Davis (00:20)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis, and today's topic is the role of Skill Sets in the VET system. Our vocational voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director, NCVER. Hello, Simon.

Simon Walker (00:42)
Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:43)
And Jenny Lambert, Director, Employment, Education and Training, and Director, Tourism at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Welcome to you too, Jenny.

Jenny Lambert (00:53)
Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:54)
As many listeners will know, the basic building blocks of the VET system in Australia are units of competency. Each of these units consist of particular learning outcomes and their application in the workplace. And when these units of competency are connected together into particular sets that sit below a full qualification, we call them Skill Sets. And today, we're going to focus on how these Skill Sets, which typically enable someone to perform particular jobs or functions, are likely to take on extra significance as Australia responds to the shifting workforce demands and challenges, particularly in the health sector at this time of COVID-19. Simon, I'll start with you. In recent times, pre-COVID-19, how significant had Skill Sets become in the workplace, especially in regard to lifelong learning and these things called micro-credentials?

Simon Walker (01:51)
Well, I might start with what we understand a definition of a micro-credential to be. And the short answer to that is, we actually don't have a formal definition. Nonetheless, consistent with the data that we collect and as put into Peter Noonan's report on the AQF, he used two types of Skill Sets. One is the training package Skill Set and the other is an accredited short course, and they are formally recognised in the national training system. And in the absence of anything else, he would regard those as micro-credentials, and it's a good place to start. With both of those programs, as we call them, they've actually been very under-reported, we've discovered. And we now know, by looking at the full range of participation in the training system, that there are in fact a lot more Skill Set activity going on, but they're not being reported as such.

Simon Walker (02:54)
I'll give you an example: There are some Skill Sets which are just one subject; a good example of that is the Responsible Service of Alcohol. We have a certain amount reported to us formally, but we know, by looking at the data, that in fact a great deal more is going on out there, as well. So to give you a sense of the numbers, the Responsible Service of Alcohol is about 26,000 that is formally reported to us as enrolments. But by digging a bit deeper into the data, which doesn't formally recognise some of those programs, we find out there's at least 100,000 or 200,000 more enrolments going on out there. So I know it's a little confusing, but the reality is that what is formally reported to us are fairly small numbers of Skill Sets, around about 80,000 a year. But if we scratch the surface a bit deeper, we find that there are in fact millions of enrolments in Skill Sets of one form or another.

Steve Davis (03:53)
Now, that's really going to be interesting and inform our chat a little bit later, when we think about employing micro-credentials as part of our response to COVID-19 and also in recovering from it. But before we get to that, Jenny, from your perspective as Director, Employment, Education and Training for the Chamber, what have been the emerging trends in relation to demand for these micro-credentials, and have any particular sectors adopted them more than others?

Jenny Lambert (04:21)
Well, I think you can put the demand for Skill Sets into two baskets. The first is a general view that short courses, delivering in a punchy way, in a resource-managed way, a set of skills that's needed by employers, whether they be formally credentials or micro-credentials in the system, or whether they just be short courses that are using the VET competency units as a basis of teaching, are really important. And they may or may not be recorded in the system, or be delivered in accordance with the way that the system formalises them. So that whole issue of short courses is going to be in high demand everywhere, as we [inaudible 00:05:12] upskilling and lifelong learning to meet the needs of the future workforce. The second basket, the primary drivers of the Skill Sets in terms of the absolute numbers, and Simon gives an excellent example of that, is the Responsible Service of Alcohol program.

Jenny Lambert (05:31)
But there are many other short courses or Skill Sets that are meeting licensing or particular credential needs. For example, in the aviation package, there are a lot of Skill Sets there that meet the needs for the Civil Aviation Standards Authority. So there is a whole range of sort of needs to meet particular license [inaudible 00:05:58] and that's the second basket. In between those two things, of course, there are growth areas: For example, with Skill Sets in supporting the National Disability Employment Scheme, where, for example, Queensland has agreed to fund Skill Sets in various areas. And that can certainly drive where you can get access to funding. That will also drive formalising baskets of skills into formal Skill Sets.

Steve Davis (06:28)
What makes these upskilling, these short courses, these micro-credentials, so attractive? Is it getting some niche skills that are needed, or is it the speed aspect of being able to respond quickly to a new need that the bigger, more structured courses aren't offering at this point in time?

Jenny Lambert (06:50)
Well, I definitely think it's about speed and cost of delivery, and being targeted on what skills are needed for a particular work outcome. So in the space of like with the Responsible Service of Alcohol, it's a particular legislative need, which everybody who works in a licensed premise needs to have. And that's what drives it. So there are Responsible Service of Gaming, there are other licensed white cards, other license... the traffic controllers that operate the stop-start signs in the roads. I mean, they all have a need that drives the need for the students to get that qualification, in order to access those jobs. But they don't need a whole qualification to access those jobs. So for them, it's a way of accessing the jobs in a cost-effective way, and also in a timely way.

Simon Walker (07:55)
Yeah. Just to add to Jenny's comments, when we had a look at the full range of data to see what else was out there that wasn't formally reported, what we can see quite clearly is that the majority of enrolments in Skill Sets are around safety and compliance and, as Jenny's pointed out, licensing. But the licensing of itself is around safety and compliance, in the main. And they are, we think, in a provisional view, around about two thirds of all Skill Sets have some safety or compliance component to them.

Steve Davis (08:29)
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, that then brings us to the aspect of this discussion in current times. You can't listen to the news, read any news coverage, without COVID-19 and reactions to it, guidelines, etcetera. So here we have a situation where everyone's doing their best to flatten the curve, to make sure that our health system is not stretched beyond capacity. But internally, there must surely be increasing demand on certain Skill Sets. And there are humans delivering these skills who are becoming fatigued and stretched beyond what they would normally expect. So how does something like these short courses, micro-credentials, the Skill Sets approach, apply, or could apply, to help us cope with this demand? Jenny?

Jenny Lambert (09:24)
Oh, there'd be no doubt there'd be short courses happening as we speak that will be delivering to existing health workforces; reminders, upskilling... to help them to deal with the personal protection equipment, the way that they should be handling patients who are confirmed with having COVID. Even though they may have covered some of those aspects in their courses, there'd be a whole range of upskilling presentations. There's a whole range of resources, departments of health in each state have issued to remind people how to deal with these issues. The question will be... And it's interesting that the Australian Industry and Skills Committee has set up a subcommittee to allow for the rapid approval of Skill Sets and qualifications that may be arising from the current crisis. But it may be that even that process may not then deliver a formal credential process outcome for COVID.

Jenny Lambert (10:30)
I mean, we've got to remember that there's a lag in terms of people starting to deliver those courses, students going through them, and coming out the other end. Let's hope that the curve of the crisis is well and truly over in the next couple of months. So it may not be that the system will be able to work through all that straight away. But there is absolutely no doubt that, as we speak, there will be short courses being delivered now, of which the VET system's competency units will be useful in that. But it will have to be happening now. And that's part of the response that's needed for the crisis.

Steve Davis (11:15)
You mentioned before that people in authority are having to fast-track the approval of making use of short courses to quickly help people ramp up, because we are in a crisis. Do you think that would also stretch across sectors, as far as policymakers are concerned, to lift their gaze to allied health sectors, to see if people there could be quickly brought up to speed with some niche skills to help support others in the more central aspects of the health sector?

Jenny Lambert (11:51)
Yeah, potentially. I mean, I think the issue will be how the system formally will be used in that way, or whether it will be more informally used in that way. And that will just depend on... It doesn't matter how rapidly the system can update these things. The needs are now, and so the departments of health and other people in authority will be looking at how to make these solutions very quickly happen. But there's no doubt that what will be interesting, in this rapid response of the new process the Australian Industry and Skills Committee has set up, that it probably will deliver some medium term... And when I say medium term, I still mean in [inaudible 00:12:40] some medium term outcomes to help the crisis, and it certainly will be a very interesting learning for the way that credentials and micro-credentials are approved going forward.

Simon Walker (12:54)
I am aware right now that governments, and Jenny has mentioned the Australian Industry and Skills Committee, which is an arm of government that approves products, including Skill Sets, are very much turning their mind to the urgent needs of how they can skill-up the health workforce now. They are also looking, however, at what happens when we come out of this crisis. And what would be the role of micro-credentials to be able to get sharp, short training programs up to get people back into employment? So there's two aspects to this. I think one of the challenges for the health sector in particular, but arguably all sectors, is the VET sector has a high focus on practical training. And if you were to take, for example, CPR, which would require at the very least some simulation of performing CPR, at the moment, we're moving most of this online. So how online training can translate and still deliver the appropriate outcome for some training that would otherwise be done, either in a classroom setting or in a practical workshop setting, is going to be a challenge for the sector. Jenny?

Jenny Lambert (14:06)
Yes, I think Simon makes a very strong point. And similarly, a lot of the training packages also require workplace experience. And it's going to be really hard for students to get what they call integrated learning, or WIL experience, within their courses. Because these times are hard, so there will have to be, I'm sure, many work-arounds to meet the short-term need. Now, that may be that some of the health institutions are willing to take people into their workforce who may not have finished the qualification, because they still have to get the work experience component completed, but then do the work experience and get the qualification concurrent to them actually being employed. Now, that will be subject to any licensing or registration requirements. But these are the types of things they might have to do, to work around, and there's no doubt that training providers are very challenged at the moment to deliver competency-based training to where you are assessed according to the way that you demonstrate that you have learned the skill. They are very challenging times to do that by distance learning, for many of the packages.

Simon Walker (15:32)
Yeah. And just on that, right now, the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, is doing their level best to look at how some of the requirements for the specifications of how you teach and assess a unit of competency can be relaxed to the degree that it doesn't negatively affect the outcome, but nonetheless give training providers a bit more flexibility to be able to deliver and assess those units without the literal requirements that currently exist in those training package specifications. So there is a lot of energy right across government and its various authorities that are absolutely acknowledging this unique and extraordinary situation we're in and making it as flexible as possible for training providers to deliver the sort of important skills we need now and not putting up barriers to both students and providers to be able to get those outcomes.

Steve Davis (16:31)
Can we just reflect momentarily, philosophically, even, on the lasting impact this period of time will have in the VET sector? Because we've covered previously on this podcast, and in many reports, the glacial speed at which often courses are updated and respond to what's happening in the, inverted commas, "real world." And here we have swung the pendulum to the other end. Methinks the genie will never go quite back in the bottle the same way. So perhaps just a moment, Jenny, to reflect on looking into the future, once we're past this urgency of the COVID response: Do we see a very different mindset within the VET sector, when it comes to considering how to change courses and adapt in the future?

Jenny Lambert (17:25)
I certainly think we will learn a great deal about any change in process and what is needed in order to get approval. I think some of the fundamental issues around speed of getting packages changed are not necessarily the way that they're sort of bundled. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. So the packages that are really slow to update... And then I think of two specifically at the moment, in construction and electrical; I mean, they have been many, many years to update. And we have to solve more than just the process of approval to get those type of packages to be updated more quickly. And we have to always remember that if we update packages too quickly, then providers... It's a very expensive process to constantly update, update. So there's always a balance in here. But there's no doubt, though, that these challenging times will give us a lot of learnings that will help us in at least removing the administrative barriers. What it may not help us with is the case-by-case industry issues that are holding back some packages from being updated as regularly as they should be.

Simon Walker (18:47)
To add to that, most people would know that there is a VET reform process going through the... what they call a VET reform roadmap has been put out to public consultation. As a piece of work, obviously, it's been held up a little bit during this period, but within a wide range of reforms are reforms around the speed to market of training products, which includes, as Jenny said, the approval process. But it is more than that. And there's a lot of commentary around even the design of the product being made easier for changes to occur, being in more flexible units, or even grouping up units into a sort of wider range of outcomes, so that you don't need to address specific tasks on a constant, updating basis. So there's a whole range of activity that is started, arguably been put on pause, but we'll return to that as a wider piece around how we develop training products for the Australian national system.

Simon Walker (19:50)
And I'll just remind everybody, we do have 1500 qualifications, another 1500 Skill Sets that are out in the market and have been nationally endorsed, and yet only a fraction of those are actually used. So there are a whole bunch of other things that need to be brought to bear into the national training system. Maintaining, and I'll just add those two together, 3000 products, when only 15% or so are actually used to any degree, is of itself a burden that we could probably do without.

Steve Davis (20:21)
Leaving the health sector to one side, just in the marketplace at the moment, there are many people who have lost their jobs, and the places they've worked for have ceased trading. So in the near future, as we start to return to normalcy, there will be employees looking for a place to work. And obviously, some sort of micro-credential short courses are going be a necessity to get into perhaps a change of direction. So while we've got this challenge in the VET sector for the trainers, for their industry partners and for regulators to adapt at the moment, from a marketing perspective, to communicate what courses are out there and to hopefully channel the right people to the right course, I see that as a very important phase that is in our near future. Jenny, from your perspective at the Chamber, overlooking training, etcetera, what do you foresee in how we respond to that aspect of our challenge, for the general population out there?

Jenny Lambert (21:29)
Yes. I think there's... So much of what you're saying is very important. I mean, the first bit is, is information clear and good guidance to people about where the jobs are? And so the work being done, in terms of the Careers Institute and the Skills Commission, understanding where the jobs are and getting good, clear careers advice out to people... And that's lifelong, not just students... And in this case, as you say, it'll be people coming off periods of unemployment that will need to look at where the job potentials are, if it's not back where they were previously. So all of that information is very important to be well-curated and presented in a way that's readily accessible by people who will be looking for that guidance.

Jenny Lambert (22:20)
The other really important thing in the recovery is making sure that the training providers, there is many training providers that survive this journey. I mean, they also will be having significant changes to their revenue at the moment. And obviously, we want them to come out the other side, both public and private providers, and being available. But most importantly, the big issue is making sure that as many businesses as possible come through the other side quickly and are employing as quickly as possible, and we're optimistic that that will happen, provided that we we continue to get through the health crisis as best we can. And hopefully, we'll see that the employment and training come back quickly.

Simon Walker (23:11)
One of the things that will come out of this, and the crisis itself is perhaps a catalyst, is perhaps changing the mindset away from a compliance need, for Skill Sets in particular, and which is quite clear in the data, to something that's not just compliance. It's actually around some preliminary skills for any job, not necessarily a safety and compliance requirement. And that is, I think, where Skill Sets want to go and micro-credentials want to go. We don't want to just get stuck on licensing. We actually want them to be more broadly used, right across the training sector for any one of a number of schools. And there is potentially an opportunity here for, as long as people are made aware, and I think Jenny makes a good point, is most people don't know that they need a Skill Set, and a lot of employers can often find it difficult to articulate just exactly what those skills are.

Simon Walker (24:09)
So getting that information out to people, if we need to get something done quickly, is going to be key to this. But perhaps what will come out of that is a broadening of the scope of use of Skill Sets, beyond what is, as I say, a fairly tight focus on safety and compliance.

Steve Davis (24:25)
So in other words, you're saying not just safety and compliance, but looking at this aspect of learning as part of lifelong learning. That sort of mindset, isn't it?

Simon Walker (24:35)

Steve Davis (24:36)
All right. And do you think, as in a Jekyll and Hyde scenario, we embrace Skill Sets, we know they're part of the foundation blocks in getting together some qualifications; is there a dark side in focusing on these smaller units that costs us some of the benefits of an extended arrangement of learning for a fuller qualification? Jenny, what do you think about that?

Jenny Lambert (25:10)
Well, it could go that way, but I mean, before that, there'll be an upside, mostly upside, of the continuing shift towards Skill Sets and micro-credentials, provided that we get better RPL and credit recognition processes in place. And this was the big emphasis of what the recent review of the Australian Qualifications Framework said, is that now we've really got to improve the way that people are recognised for the units of competency they have done. I think that's the big challenge that the VET sector hasn't done as well as it could do. And indeed, education generally could do a lot better.

Jenny Lambert (26:01)
And so if we can get that improved, then people doing Skill Sets, then, which can ultimately be recognised as part of a broader qualification, is a win-win. It gets a quicker solution to immediate skills acquisition, along with the medium to longer-term objective of getting a qualification. But it's trying to solve... If we can't solve that credit recognition process, then I guess there is a potential for people not to see a qualification outcome in the long term. But that said, as long as they've got a great job and that they've got the skills they need and they're happy, then everyone's benefited as well.

Simon Walker (26:48)
There's plenty of views around the notion of substitution of Skill Sets for qualifications. And I think you'll find most people would still want to preserve them as complimentary aspects of the system. Young people in particular coming out with a broad based qualification with a fuller range of skills gives them portability in the labor market. And they form the foundation of their early journey in the labor market. But certainly, as they go through their working life, then Skill Sets are arguably a more convenient and more targeted way of continuing to upskill, and there's plenty of commentary about the nature of work requiring upskilling on an ongoing basis throughout people's working lives. So you wouldn't, I don't think, want to see Skill Sets take over the role of qualifications. I think they are complimentary parts of the system.

Steve Davis (27:44)
I'll put this to both of you: In the next 12 months, should we be in a place where we're looking at some reliable method of an individual skills audit for each human in our economy, so that they can go in with eyes wide open and make some good choices of either short or longer form courses that are available? Is there a mechanism for that individual skills audit right now, or should there be? Jenny?

Jenny Lambert (28:13)
I think there is some benefit of that, but I think it will be individual driven. It won't be systemic. If individuals want to get recognition now, if they want to get credit now, they've got some mechanisms in place, but they're by no means perfect. I think there is a long way to go, and certainly not in the next 12 months will these things be the priority. The number one priority for Australia, including its training system, will be to get the economy back on its feet and get people skilled and ready to perform work as quickly as the movement restrictions are lifted, so that we can get ourselves going again. That will be the number one priority. So issues about sub-issues of the VET system and its micro-credentials and issues of individual skills will be nowhere near as important as the core issues of getting the VET system well-funded and able to meet the skilled workforce needed to get the economy back to where it was.

Simon Walker (29:20)
Possibly one thing to add is, there is some work going on about designing some information systems that will allow people to take their existing qualifications or credentials, not necessarily a skills audit, but what they already have as a credential, and then based on that, if they look to the job they might want to go into, what is the gaps in those competencies that might be required to take them from being credentialed for one occupation into another occupation? And there's a quite a bit of work being done at the moment to see if they can get a more systemic way of mapping those things and give that information to people as part of a career advice process. So it's a bit early days to go much further than what I've just said. But I do know that that work is underway.

Steve Davis (30:11)
And I think that's something positive to look forward to, as well. But in the meantime, as Jenny said, yes, we need to be ready to hit go quickly, as soon as these restrictions are lifted. Jenny Lambert and Simon Walker, thank you both for this conversation.

Simon Walker (30:25)
Thanks, Steve.

Jenny Lambert (30:27)
Thanks so much, Steve.

Steve Davis (30:30)
Vocational Voices is produced by NCVER on behalf of the Australian government and state and territory governments, with funding provided through the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. For further information, please visit