Transcript of VET pathways to meaningful careers

22 August 2023

Vocational Voices: Season 8, Episode  4

VET pathways to meaningful careers

Joy de Leo (00:04)

And some of the research shows that young people are looking for meaning and purpose in their work, but also to be able to have a positive societal impact beyond the profit motive in the workplace. And increasingly young people want to be associated with employers and colleagues who are ethical and a force for good.

Steve Davis (00:28)

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 episode has been produced for National Skills Week 2023. It's entitled, VET pathways to meaningful careers. Our vocational voices today are Joy de Leo, NCVER, and Michael Healy, Education Services Australia.

Welcome both of you to the podcast.

Joy de Leo (00:59)

Thank you, Steve.

Michael Healy (00:59)


Steve Davis (01:00)

The concept of meaningful work. It's something that's been regularly voiced by participants in VET research for many years. For example, in 2009 in an NCVER paper entitled Careers in vocational education and training: What are they really like?, an education manager is quoted describing her career as meaningful work, where I get to make a difference, work that challenges my intellect and becomes part of who I am in a positive and uplifting way.

Similarly, in the 2000 NCVER paper, How people choose vocational education and training programs, the authors there note, here's another quote, “some students in courses in the engineering field were looking for qualifications that would lead them to meaningful employment, as opposed to their past employment experiences, which had been intermittent, part time, and insecure.” And again, and finally, in 2006 NCVER paper entitled Mix or match? New apprentices’ learning styles and trainers’ preferences for training in workplaces, the authors there note recurring themes in their research and previous surveys of apprentices in the automotive and hospitality sectors, namely that their top learning preferences were for effective instructors, clearly articulated process for assessment in the workplace, quality relationships between new apprentices and their workplace colleagues, and the opportunity to undertake meaningful work to support learning.

But, what does meaningful mean and what are the pathways for achieving that end? We hope to tackle that today in a meaningful way, dare I say it. But first, Joy, may I turn to you. Could you give us a brief overview of the current status of the labour market?

Joy de Leo (03:04)

Thanks, Steve. Well, it's a very good time for job seekers, the best we've seen in a very long time, with unemployment at a very low rate at about 3.6%, although it's starting to creep up and it might change in the future. But it's not so good for employers, particularly in some industries, especially since work participation is decreasing with the ageing population and we heard about that today with the launch of the intergenerational report. That's moving very quickly and I'll talk about that later.

But people are retiring and reducing their work hours. So it's not so easy to resolve this with migration because we have a current housing crisis. So a key way to address skill shortages is for governments to provide incentives for students, for existing workers, and also for employers, so that people can train or retrain in those new and emerging occupations, but particularly for those occupations that are in demand.

And those incentives can take the form of training subsidies or fee free courses, for example, incentives for employers to take on apprentices and so on. But I'd like to share some data on what those top occupations are, and I'm just going to look at the top four or five because this is useful for job seekers to know.

Date from Jobs and Skills Australia in December 2022 show that skill shortages actually have worsened across the board in most occupational groups and many of those require a VET qualification, that's a vocational education and training qualification, especially at Certificate levels 3, 4, Diploma and above. And 40% of jobs growth over the next four years will be at those levels.

So it's a good time to study or to consider studying VET at this time, particularly in the areas where there are most of the skill gaps in the labour force. And some of those top occupations in demand that I mentioned are firstly and foremost in the care professions. Top of the list particularly nursing, but, but also aged care, child care, disability care and these are absolutely critical because the intergenerational report that was released this week shows that in the next 40 years, people requiring aged care will double and we don't have the population coming through to meet that demand.

We also have occupations that require digital skills, and those are increasingly applied across most occupations, but particularly in those ICT roles, specialist roles, such as programmers and software analysts and so on.

Also in building and construction, the trades, particularly construction managers, and in hospitality, such as for chefs and cooks. But Steve, the real problem is the mismatch between those occupations in demand and the low number of students currently undertaking training to prepare for those jobs. And just to give you a quick example, we have only about 5% of the nurses currently undertaking training, at least in VET anyway, that we would need annually.

And not all complete their training in nursing, for example, 5% and the gap in digital skills is similar. So the situation is quite serious. So, as I said before, the intergenerational report shows that with our ageing population, the number of people requiring care will double, so we really need to find a way to meet that demand.

Steve Davis (07:12)

I really think, as compared to any of the interviews we've done in Vocational Voices, any stakeholders who have the chance to influence outcomes here, there must surely be a selfish factor that should propel all of us. I mean if we look at aged care, we're all heading up in that area sooner rather than later.

Joy de Leo (07:33)


Steve Davis (07:34)

ICT insecurity, especially with an aging population, so many scams going on that this is an area of great importance to all of us. Trying to get any renovations done to modify homes to allow for more people to dwell within, building shortages. And then being able to go out and relax and try and socialise instead of cocooning relies on hospitality.

So, we all should have intrinsic motivation to try and tweak things and get things right, which is probably time to turn to Michael on this front. If we look at those top occupations, especially in the care sector, what are some of the challenges in meeting the skills for them?

Michael Healy (08:15)

It's really interesting when we, I think, when we talk about skills gaps and things, because I think sometimes in the media and you know politicians discussing that, sometimes I feel like these skills are autonomous beings in themselves.

They say we need skills, we need to fill these skills gap. And we need to remember that it's people that fill these gaps. People with certain skills, certainly. It's people that will become aged care workers and people that will go and work in you know, cyber security and so forth. And so we need to recognise some of the other factors that people use to make career and education decisions, I think, because certainly it's very useful to use labour market information to identify opportunities so that you can have some degree of confidence that if I invest my time and effort and money into this training program that there will be an outcome in terms of employment. But, you know, if we take the example of aged care I could quite confidently go and do a certificate of aged care, I think, and I'm sure that I could do it well academically and I could learn the skills to keep people safe and, you know, look after them in an aged care environment, but I'm not sure that I'm the person suited to do that work.

I can't quite put my finger on why am I like that, but it, you know, I'm not necessarily someone who is highly motivated to care for someone in that very intimate physical way. It's just not who I am. So we need people to combine their values and their character strengths, such as empathy, patience, you know, that's the kind of person that we want to be looking after our elderly.

It's the kind of person I'd like to look after me when I need it. And if we take the digital skills digital. ICT work is essentially problem solving constantly because we know that the problems, once you solve it, technology's moved on and it's a whole new problem. You need to learn how to do it all over again.

So we need people with curiosity. So I think one way that we can look at it is how do we match the people that have those innate sort of qualities that suit particular kinds of work. And then equip them with the particular skills and competencies that we need to do the work. Because skills will often change, but those innate qualities tend to be fairly stable over time.

So in my mind it's a little bit of finding the right person for the right role and then equipping them with the right skills in order to perform that role.

Steve Davis (10:53)

It's a perfect storm of settings here to make meaning in the lens of work and vocation really salient, because if we think about it, some jobs, the, the meaning aspect of it is right at the surface, aged care.

You can't get anything with more meaning that at the end of your day, you have directly impacted a person's life who is dependent upon your support and in ICT, depending on what you're doing extrinsically, you can overlay a sense of meaning in that. So just before we go, I do want to stop briefly and ask both of you, what working definition do you use for meaningful in this arena of careers and vocation?

Joy, can I start with you?

Joy de Leo (11:47)

Yes and I'll introduce some of my personal views as well as trying to weave in some of the research. Meaning for me is to find a match between the values that are expressed in the nature of the work in the workplace. It might be the employer's values for the organisation and my own values, and just from my own personal experience in the past, if I've worked with an organisation where my values conflict with those of the organisation, it creates internal conflict within me. And some of the research shows that young people are looking for meaning and purpose in their work, but also to be able to have a positive societal impact beyond the profit motives in the workplace. And apparently this has become a number one driver for young people in making career choices.

And increasingly young people want to be associated with employers and colleagues who are ethical and a force for good.

Steve Davis (12:57)

And having the scales tipped in the favour of the employees at the moment gives more breathing space, I suppose, to stand up for that as opposed to the desperation when it's tipped the other way of just wanting to hold on to a job to eat.

Michael, meaning for you, in this context, what's your heuristic, what's your working definition?

Michael Healy (13:23)

I'm a bit of an academic nerd, so when I like to learn about things, I go and read articles and books about them. There's a scholar by the name of Brian Dik at Colorado State University. He wrote a great book called Make Your Job a Calling.

And his point is that, you know, callings, the sense of having a calling in life sometimes comes naturally to us. We, we sort of just have it, but it's something that you can actually sort of find, you can find your calling by being proactive about understanding what you, what's important to you and what sort of environments will support that so matching that. As Joy was saying, those values of your employer or your profession with your own personal values.

When he talks about meaning, he talks about three layers of it. The first thing is that the work itself is meaningful, that you are producing something of importance, or you are offering a service that is important. In comparison to that kind of work that I think many of us have done sometimes where we write a report, or we do some kind of work we don't really see it as having any lasting impact or we send it up the chain and never hear about it again. That can sometimes lack meaning.

The other level is in our life, in our family and in our community, that being a teacher is not just what we do in the classroom, but it's what we do in the community on the weekends.

People recognise us, you know, the kids come up to us when they're 25 years old and they recognise us if you're a teacher. Or a nurse, you know, you credit that person for looking after you. So it's a sort of social role that we play in relation to our work.

And then there's the altruistic sort of element of meaningful work in that we are doing something good for the world. And, you know, that can mean many different things. It doesn't necessarily have to look the same for everybody. Some of us want to look after the environment. Some of us want to save lives. Some of us want to educate children. You know, some of us want to help people thrive in their business through accounting or law, for example. So those three things come together beautifully. And I think, as you mentioned, Steve, you know, our experience recently of the disruption of the labour market and COVID and all the rest of it gave us an opportunity to recognise some of those things. And many people are making decisions now that they're going to scale back in their work or make a change in their work because they have recognised the value of some of these less tangible, sort of returns on their labour.

Steve Davis (16:05)

This is why I love talking to learned people on Vocational Voices, because you reference an academic.

My equivalent is Seth Godin and a book called Linchpin, which he wrote almost 10 years ago now, at least, which, talking similar things, but in more lay person language. And one last insertion in my own business doing consulting for small business at the time of recording the day before was a Sunday. I was exhausted and I had a client request an after-dinner chat with her and her husband on an issue that had arisen.

I was pooped, but I said yes, and then the coin dropped. I'm like a country GP attending to people after hours, and it changed my thinking, well, it just tweaked my thinking to understand the meaningful impact for their lives that I had the skill to do, and I think at this time reflecting on the joy that can come from that. I think these sorts of conversations help bring that into focus.

Given the challenges and the barriers that we've discussed so far, let's turn things around. How do we attract potential students to train in these areas of need and provide meaningful and satisfying work?

Joy de Leo (17:19)

I think it's important to raise employer awareness around what staff are looking for, young people and existing workers, what they're looking for in a job.

And, and they're looking for flexibility and choice, a work life balance, in addition to meaning and purpose. But they're also interested in the culture of the organisation, an inclusive culture and they like to be treated with respect. And we had a recent research report by Josie Misko, which showed that a contributing factor to some apprentices, abandoning their apprenticeship, was actually an unsatisfactory relationship or conflict with their employer.

So positive working relationships and a positive working environment are really important. So they would be some of the things.

Steve Davis (18:17)


Michael Healy (18:18)

I absolutely agree with the role of relationships. They can certainly, you know, turn people away from occupations and professions, a bad experience could put people away, so we need to make sure that we're putting people in front of, particularly young people, who really demonstrate all the best things about particular careers and can give people insights into what those roles look like.

I think the labour market information and exploring the world of work is really crucial. So particularly for these emerging occupations such as the digital skills that Joy referred to, it's really hard to know what they are if you're an outsider. It's hard to know what the day to day life of someone in those roles looks like.

So information and experiences where people can learn before they, you know, invest a year, two years, three years into training that they can establish for themselves whether they fit well with that. And then also I think we need to recognise that there are some barriers to people pursuing these goals.

Nursing is a good example. To become a nurse you need to do your placements and there's been a bit of discussion recently about unpaid placements and how they can cause significant stresses to students. It can make it impossible for them to complete their education. It can be incredibly stressful for them and their families.

So certainly we need nurses to undertake placements, but we need to think carefully about how we enable people, regardless of what their training is, to do what's required of them. And make sure that we're not putting up barriers because we want the best possible people to go into these occupations.

Steve Davis (19:58)

I think we're all in furious agreement on this, and especially with that focus on nurturing and honouring relationships within the workplace to enable this meaningfulness to happen. But the people in charge in leadership have come through older ways of doing things. Have either of you seen anything within the VET ecosystem that helps the messaging get through to those in power to understand the importance of facilitating the human connections at work?

Joy de Leo (20:31)

It's a good question Steve, and I think there's definitely a role for leaders in government and in agencies, but also for career counsellors in schools and career guidance staff in registered training organisations, training providers, because they can help students become aware of how and where to obtain meaningful employment and also to access funding subsidies, youth allowances, student loans and so on to be able to undertake training.

But there's also an additional issue of managing financial demands. When people are really doing it tough at the moment financially. People have to pay the rent and contribute to the family budget and so on. But finding a way to balance part time work with part time studies, training providers can actually help with advice around part time study or study online, and in some cases there might be a place for casual and part time work while students are navigating their way through studies towards their chosen occupation.

They can also help with course advice and finding good study pathways to employment. So they're some of the suggestions that I have.

Steve Davis (22:00)


Michael Healy (22:01)

One thing I'm quite interested in myself and it's a large part of my role at myfuture where we provide career information for students so that they can explore work and education pathways is the role of industry bodies who I've found to be very proactive for the most part about helping make some of those relationships and enable those points of connection between career explorers or people who are considering entering into a profession and the kind of mentors or role models in those professions. So for example, we've been working recently with the Clean Energy Council to populate our website with a few career stories of people from very different backgrounds and who have followed very different career pathways talking about what the day to day is like.

So I think the role of industry is really crucial here as well because I've found them very proactive, they all want to promote their industry and get the best people coming into it. There's a proliferation of mentoring programs, information programs. Online virtual experience is becoming quite a popular way of allowing students from all over Australia and indeed all over the world to get a taste of what it's like to do a kind of work.

So all of these kinds of things are quite marvellous and should be supported.

Steve Davis (23:22)

I'm glad you mentioned clean energy, Michael, because it prompted me, I mean, clean energy, AI, these are fields where there is technology advancing at a rate of knots, always changing. This surely must have implications for students and new job entrance.
What are you both seeing on this front?

Joy de Leo (23:41)

There's no doubt that the nature of work is changing rapidly and there's more change to come. It's been happening for a while. We see it with automated calls and information, bank tellers, self-managed bookings and checkouts at airports and supermarkets and so on. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

However, it is thought that the new jobs, particularly the clean energy technologies that you mentioned, that they are being created as a result of this technology, and they're likely to compensate for the loss of jobs brought about by those developments. And of course, it remains to be seen whether that is the case.

And I think the transition period will be bumpy. But young people need to be aware of what those new and emerging jobs might be, and they're likely to continually change, but also to know what the jobs on the way out are. So that they don't invest in training for those jobs as well. The problem is whether the training will be there in time for those new jobs.

Because things are moving faster than training for those jobs can keep up. So career advisors and training organisations really need to keep themselves up to date with new and emerging occupations and those that are likely to become redundant so that they can give accurate up to date information to students on the implications of their career choices.

So, for example, you wouldn't want to become a postal worker or a travel agent or a telemarketer, a cashier, or a truck driver. All of those occupations are on the way out. And, of course, some will remain, like teaching and health workers and tradespeople. They might change and become AI assisted, but there are new occupations coming online according to the World Economic Forum.

So we'll need AI experts, cyber security, virtual reality, managing tide water, environmental sustainability, and all the clean energy technologies. Even new occupations such as becoming a smart home designer, creating work environments that foster wellbeing and collaboration. So it's exciting, but also a bit tumultuous.

Steve Davis (26:06)

Michael, your thoughts on that also, I think I note there's nuance here too, in the ones on the way out, there will still be some residual opportunities, but it's where we direct our energies. Michael?

Michael Healy (26:18)

Absolutely. I mean, if we look at history, there certainly have been times where entire occupations have disappeared overnight.
We can look at the cotton gin and the steam engine and so forth. But the fact is that most often technology changes occupations more than it replaces them entirely. Now certainly there will be in some sectors significant loss of, you know, jobs but as Joy mentioned, often the technology that is replacing those jobs brings other jobs with it.

You know, things like AI. Yes, you know, copywriters and graphic designers should be quite cautious at the moment and thinking carefully about how they are going to cope with these changes. But at the same time, their roles in many cases will change and evolve in their own different ways. So I think something that we can do to help people approach this is first of all, equip them with some data literacy and information literacy so that they can seek out quality information that goes beyond the headlines to recognise where opportunities might be or where risks might be.

But also some critical thinking for them to assess the degree to which, you know, national trends apply to them in their regional location, you know, whether an industry in decline, is it in decline across Australia, or is there a pocket where it's still thriving, you know, these nuances certainly exist and with the right information, people can find them. But most importantly, we should be teaching our young people in particular, but everybody should be able to adopt an attitude of adaptability, knowing that change is going to come for all of our jobs, for all of our lives, no matter what it looks like.

It could be a sudden career shock, such as, you know, the C word, COVID-19. It could be a gradual change in technology or government investment. You know, when we change our governments, we all sort of think, or we read the budget and we think, okay, what does this mean for me in my occupation?

So that attitude of scanning the horizon, looking at quality information and asking what are the implications or what could the implications be for me and my role in my profession? What can I do in order to anticipate change, prepare for change, and cope with change when it happens. The worst thing that we can do is be complacent and just sail along.

Steve Davis (28:48)

Yeah, look, I'm aware also people talk about there's been data and research that someone's leaving school now, they'll have five or six different careers throughout their life. I used to think that's because they would just change their mind, but from what we're saying, it could be natural attrition, that the role they're on has disappeared or morphed completely as well, which is an aspect of that saying, which I never quite grabbed until just now.

One last very quick thing before we round up with your final thoughts, and that is, you look at a lot of cohorts in this realm of VET. Intergenerationally, do we think there's anything prompting this probing about meaning that's coming from the younger generational cohorts as they move through with the different influences on them.

I'm working with someone who is a counsellor at the moment and a millennial, and her messaging is to bring millennial values to the workplace. Is this a, I think Joy, you are nodding. A couple of quick thoughts on that.

Joy de Leo (29:52)

Yeah, just very quickly. I think that's certainly true, but also at the other end as well older workers also wanting to find meaning in their work because maybe they've had a long career and are wanting more and I've heard a lot of that as well.

But certainly young people do bring a different dimension to the workplace and a very welcome one as well.

Michael Healy (30:18)

To be honest with you, I'm sometimes a bit sceptical about the generational differences because I think that young people, old people and everyone in between basically want similar things. They want to be recognised for the work that they do, financially, but also, in their community they want to feel like they're doing something of importance.

I think maybe if there's a difference, I would probably put it down to younger generations being more forthright about what's important to them. You know, we're in a society now where it's more acceptable to wear your heart on your sleeve and speak up and make decisions, you know, vocally about whether you like something or you don't.

But I remember talking to my 85-year-old uncle about being a cane cutter in Queensland and the pride that he had for that work and, you know, and the stories he told about it. He found a lot of meaning in that work and he carried it throughout his life. So I don't think that that's unique to young people.

Maybe they're just a little bit more vocal about it.

Steve Davis (31:18)

Some crystallised thoughts there. Just in closing, I'll go to both you again with any messages that you'd like to leave for the various stakeholders. So we've got students, there are parents, there are career advisors, and even RTOs. Joy, advice from you.

Joy de Leo (31:38)

Yes, for school students or new entrants to the workforce, I would say make hay while the sun shines. Do your research, get some really good advice from various informed sources, not just from your friends who might be in the same boat as you, but find a match between what you're good at, what you love doing, and an occupation in demand that isn't on the way out.

And that's gold. The situation currently with it being a job market for young people and lots of jobs available, that situation might not last forever. So make the most of it now and establish yourself in your chosen career as soon as you can.

Steve Davis (32:32)

And Michael.

Michael Healy (32:34)

I would just like to say that career development is lifelong.

It starts from a very early age, prior to school, it ends after retirement, and people need different support at different times. We need quality career information, we need career services, career advice. It needs to be targeted to the needs of people, but it needs to represent that lifelong career journey.

Career development is also life wide. It's not just about work. It's about our leisure activities, our faith. It can be about our community interaction. We talked about meaning in work. People get a lot of meaning from being a netball coach or, you know, volunteering at the soup kitchen. And so I think as a society we could probably do a little bit more to recognise how people contribute to the community outside of their employment, remove barriers, increase support, and recognise that as part of the expression of our career.

Steve Davis (33:17)

Thank you both to Joy de Leo and Michael Healy for joining Vocational Voices.

Michael Healy (33:23)

Thank you Steve.

Joy de Leo (33:23)

Thank you Steve. Thank you.

Steve Davis (33:24)

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