Transcript of Workforce ready: challenges and opportunities for VET

12 August 2020

Vocational Voices: Season 5, Episode 1

Workforce ready: challenges and opportunities for VET

John Buchanan (00:04)
One strand of research was to also include the government's capacity to think about future labour demand and over the course of the three years, we worked up an analysis which said, the challenge is not so much to predict the future, but rather we've got to deepen the capacity to adapt to change.

Steve Davis (00:23)
Hello, I'm Steve Davis and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. In July 2020, the annual 'No Frills' conference was held, but this year it was delivered as a virtual online event due to COVID-19 restrictions preventing large gatherings. Along with a series of standalone presentations, two live Q&A sessions were held, and in this episode, we'll be sharing a sampling of some of these two events. The theme of the conference was Workforce ready challenges and opportunities for VET. Throughout the week papers and discussions highlighted how much our economy relies on the successful transition of workers from training to job. And of course, this topic was explored in the context of a world where workplaces are rapidly evolving alongside technology and market demand, begging the question what is VET's role in preparing students for work?

Steve Davis (01:30)
During 'No Frills' there was much debate over how workplaces will look and what skills workers will need in the future. However, one thing remained clear, almost all workers will need to upskill or retrain throughout their working lives. So, in what's to follow you'll hear some of the challenges and opportunities this presents for VET, along with some insights into what plans we should be making for the future. The first day of live Q&A featured John Buchanan from the University of Sydney, who delivered a presentation entitled New directions in skills planning: insights from occupational labour flows within Australia's employed workforce. The other two speakers were George Margelis and Anne Livingstone from the Australian Aged Care Industry Information Technology Council, who jointly delivered a presentation entitled Future digital social care: the challenges and considerations of a tech and innovation enhanced workforce. This episode opened with a brief snippet from John Buchanan's presentation. Let's listen to a little more before sampling the Q&A session.

John Buchanan (02:44)
At the moment people are pursuing two dead end strategies. The first strategy is what I call linear gap analysis, and many of you will be familiar with this. People say we've got to get a handle on the skills that are going to be needed in the future, we map out what those are, we look at what the stock of skills are at the moment that are in those domains, and we then say well, this is what we need, this is what we've got, that gap has got to be filled by the education and training system. That approach to skills planning has been pursued for many, many decades and has been shown over many, many decades to be pretty unhelpful. Projections are usually wrong, and often it's not just an order of magnitude, it's the direction of change that's got long. Sue Richardson squared off the problems with that way of thinking about skills planning about 15 years ago, and I strongly support her findings there.

John Buchanan (03:44)
The other unhelpful way of thinking is the idea that we need 21st century skills supported by micro-credentials. This is something that's propagated very actively by groups like the World Economic Forum, but many people in this conference will have heard the debates about generic skills, employability skills. These have been around for decades now, and the argument is we've got to give people problem solving skills, we've got to give people collaboration and communication skills. The fundamental problem with this idea is that you cannot have problem solving in the abstract, you cannot have collaboration in the abstract. As we argued in preparing for the best and worst of times, you can only develop problem solving capability if you are mastering it in a side of particular expertise.

Steve Davis (04:36)
And that was John Buchanan. And now let's listen to a selection of questions and answers from the first of the 'No Frills' 2020 Q&A live sessions.

Steve Davis (04:50)
Let's start the session with a question I'd like to put to John. In your presentation, you outlined the importance of governments, the VET sector, and individuals, to develop a mindset and skillset, if you like, of adaptability, but how's this adaptive capability, as you call it, any different from that collection of so-called soft skills, like problem solving, because you point out in the research that it shows it's ineffective to teach those sorts of skills in an abstract way, they need to be grounded in a specific domain.

John Buchanan (05:24)
At the heart of our work that I've been doing with people like Leesa Wheelahan and the cross-disciplinary team at Sydney Uni, we've looked very closely at the question of 21st century skills, and this is just the latest incarnation of a narrative that's been going pretty actively since the early 1980s. And the problem with that generic employability in 21st century skills narrative is that it defines those qualities independent of domains of expertise. And in all the work we've done, Lisa and the work I did with cognitive psychologists, people from engineering, it's interesting, when you look across all disciplines, they've grappled with this question of how do you get good problem solvers? How do you get people who are good working in teams? And it's pretty well established that you can only develop those skills in the context of a particular lane of expertise.

John Buchanan (06:24)
So the example Leesa and I like to cite is you could have the best trained coordinator of a childcare centre that would have great problem solving skills for managing a childcare centre, but if you put them on an oil rig in the middle of Bass Strait and a fire broke out, they'd have a problem to solve but they would not be well-placed. Equally, if you put a highly trained engineer in the middle of a childcare centre and you had 20 three-year-olds melting down simultaneously, chances are they wouldn't know how to handle it, and that's been immortalised in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Kindergarten Cop. So if we're really interested in building up people with good problem solving skills, good capacity to collaborate, they should build that off mastering some kind of domain.

John Buchanan (07:14)
And historically Australia used to do that extremely well in its trade systems, trade training system, Australian metal fitters and fabricators were highly respected all around, the same with Australian electricians still, because they are so well trained, and they don't necessarily stay metal fitters and machinists, or they didn't stay as metal fitters and machinists, they didn't necessarily stay as electricians, but they can use that capacity to read a blueprint to use their dexterous skills and move into other areas. And the real problem with the World Economic Forum's strategy is it is very, very ... silent, actually. It's silent on institutional coherence that underpins the development of these skills, and it's silent on the question of domains of expertise. And you would have seen in my presentation, we're going to a lot of trouble to try and identify what are the new domains of expertise today, and I think that's a far more useful question to pursue than this almost dead end of pursuing generic skills.

Steve Davis (08:15)
Anne Livingstone, in part of your presentation you highlighted the work of Juniper in Western Australia, where they've created a new role of the New Tech Advocate to help staff and volunteers within the aged care sector enhance their skills and digital literacy. Would you consider this an example of adaptability?

Anne Livingstone (08:37)
Thanks, Steve. Yes, I think I would. Juniper is really an example of an organisation that's focusing on adapting its approach to deliver a workforce that has the capabilities and capacity to deliver on their strategic plan, which is really to enhance the service delivery that they're doing in some very remote, and regional, and metropolitan areas where new technologies and advanced technologies might play a more striking role in promoting independence and improving quality of care. They are using that to build a more adaptive and, I guess, a more resilient workforce to be able to respond to whatever the landscape of technologies that are evolving and getting better moment by moment, and being more user friendly to the groups, particularly aged care or people with disabilities. So yes, I do think that it is an organisation that's using that. And it's put that organisation particularly in good stead when we've had this amplified disruption of our sector through COVID-19, and where we've seen, overnight, the increased use of telehealth and telecare strategies, and digital strategies to connect both the workforce individuals and to provide different service step.

Steve Davis (10:21)
This one's for you, George Margelis, you highlighted the divide in access to training between formal and informal workers within aged care. Would seem to follow that any plans for tackling future skills challenges will be hampered if we have a patchwork workforce of haves and have-nots in relation to training, and this begs the question of who should be responsible for investing to reduce these gaps?

George Margelis (10:46)
Thanks, Steve. Well, that's a great question. The reality is we need to make sure we don't confuse education with digital literacy and with digital capabilities. So, my background's in medicine, and I've got clinician friends who have had their 20 years of postgraduate education who still struggle to use technology. So, it's not just a matter of assuming someone who has skills in their domain can also have digital skills. And also, we need to make sure we don't confuse an age issue. Older clinicians often use technology better than younger clinicians, and we're actually seeing the paradox where young doctors who are literally born with a mobile phone, a laptop in their hands still struggle to use technology within some of our healthcare facilities.

George Margelis (11:27)
So we need to make sure there's two things, structured training around the use of the technology that's relevant for their jobs, so things that they need to use are well trained on about the basics of it, and understand the implications of the use of that technology, but you also need to train the people designing the technologies to make sure they're designing tools that are usable. So don't make them complex and require us to sit down with a manual to learn how to use them, but use simple to use, one click type interfaces which enable us to provide the solution on the spot, and I think it goes both ways. And it really falls back then down to professional responsibility. If your role requires you to use technology, then you have to learn how to use it. I mean it's a core skill nowadays. If a doctor didn't know how to use a stethoscope, not many of us would go to them. If someone who has a computer on their desk doesn't know how to use that computer to full effect, then they're doing a disservice to their consumers.

Steve Davis (12:25)
I'll turn to one from Kristen. This is to the whole panel, and Anne, I might head it your way first, how do our panellists think the change in travel immigration due to COVID-19 is going to change the VET landscape? Many providers rely on international students, and some employers currently rely on skilled immigrants in VET related occupations. I figured from the aged care sector, that would be extremely pertinent. Anne, are you happy to go first?

Anne Livingstone (12:55)
Yeah, thanks Steve. Yeah, I guess we are a sector, particularly some of our rural providers rely heavily, some of them indeed solely on overseas workers where yet to see obviously the ongoing effect of that, but it means that our very vulnerable workforce, which is at the end of the line sometimes for recruitment, needs to work smarter in recruiting a stable and sustainable workforce, but I guess also, I can't comment on the training sector, but in our sector many providers are looking at other sectors that have got complimentary skillsets, that have downturns through this time, and are doing some really creative ways of working with those individuals who may have been in hospitality, certainly airlines are one of the target areas for members of our industry, and looking at really creative ways of upskilling and using their existing skillsets very quickly to adapt to shortfalls.

Steve Davis (14:18)
And John, from your perspective.

John Buchanan (14:20)
Sure. Yeah, I think this is one of the really fascinating things about the current crisis is that the impact of this virus on societies is showing the deep fault lines and underpinning structure, and you saw in Singapore that they thought they had it under control, but it was essentially their guest workers and their migrant workers, where it then got out of control. And in Australia, it's showed a similar ... there's been a deep reliance on a very cheap workforce, which has allowed Australian employers to get away with not paying decent wages and to get away with not training, and they've been flushed out.

John Buchanan (15:02)
I think this is a really, really interesting development, and I think that Anne's made the really obvious point, which I think is a good one, which is absolutely central to my argument, or their argument, that people aren't just trained as care workers, or they're not just trained as hospitality workers, and they're not just clerical workers, it's that labour flows, and it's the coherence of those flows that I think we should be exploring more. And that means we've got to have more creative ways of defining what those broader domains of expertise are, so I think there will be a big impact. I don't think COVID is going to go away anytime soon, and in terms of pressure on employers, I think that's a good thing.

Steve Davis (15:44)
Any closing comments, John? What would you like to leave as a thought for people to ponder in relation to your work?

John Buchanan (15:50)
I just think that if there's vocational educators out there who take their domain seriously, I as the researcher really think that they've got really important skills, and they haven't been recognised for long enough. And I think it's about time we took vocational education seriously as a domain, not something to marketise, not something to provide a foundation for the World Economic Forum to produce its next vision of a market, let's actually take vocational skills seriously, and then build them in a quality places.

Steve Davis (16:17)

Anne Livingstone (16:19)
We're in a sector that it's really quality vocational skillsets and training, and I think we need a new approach to that. I think that's fair. In our area of interest, innovation and technology, we really need to start from the beginning here, there needs to be much more focus on the development of contemporary responses of training and skill development for contemporary service delivery, which will include more innovation and more technology.

Steve Davis (16:56)
And George?

George Margelis (16:57)
Following on from Anne, I think one of the important things is that, for the educators who are delivering these skills training, they look at it from the perspective of what role technology plays in the delivery of that skill and the use of that skill so that when they're training on that skill, they're also training around the technology aspect of it. And also, from the perspective of understanding that those processes that their training will be influenced by the new technologies coming forward, and the ability to adapt those processes to use the new technology is really important going forward. So we need to train the people who doing the processes to be able to feed back to the technologists on how to improve the technology to improve the process. So it's a very cyclical function, but we need to co-design together to produce the solutions.

David Redway (17:46)
If I could sum it up briefly, I would say that the work shows that the educational choices that young people make have a significant effect on their longer term outcomes, but the transitions are becoming more difficult, and higher educational attainment is no guarantee that young people won't experience difficult transitions or periods of unemployment.

Steve Davis (18:07)
The second of our two Q&A sessions from No Frills 2020, our speakers were Erica Smith from Federation University Australia, who delivered a presentation entitled Future Workforce Ready: How Apprenticeships and Traineeships Can Help, and David Redway from the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment, whose presentation was entitled 15 Going On 25: Insights from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth. The snippet of audio we began this second section with was from David Redway's presentation, so let's hear a little more before moving to the Q&A.

David Redway (18:50)
When we look at labour force status at 25, most young people, around 90%, are in employment, but the nature and quality of the employment depends on their educational experiences and attainment. Young people with a post skill qualification, particularly at a bachelor degree or apprenticeship level, are more likely to be in full-time or ongoing employment by age 25. Those with lower levels of educational attainment, on the other hand, have a greater likelihood of being in less stable forms of employment, or of being unemployed or not in the labour force at age 25. Across all attainment levels, however, we've seen a decrease in employment rates and an increase in casualisation. Young people without a post skill qualification are particularly vulnerable, and Year 12 alone no longer seems to provide the advantage it might have in earlier cohorts, and all young people are vulnerable to changing economic circumstances.

David Redway (19:51)
Longitudinal data allows us to look at the duration of states, such as unemployment. This slide shows the prevalence of periods of unemployment and looks at two measures, the proportion of young people who experienced a period of at least one month of unemployment in three or more years between ages 21 and 25, and the median duration in months of the longest unemployment spell. Generally, young people with lower levels of educational attainment experience more frequent and longer periods of unemployment than those with higher education levels, but education doesn't entirely protect young people from extreme events, such as the global financial crisis. What stands out in this slide is the increased prevalence and duration of unemployment across all attainment levels in the YO6 cohort. This cohort comprised a group of young people who were aged 15 in 2006 and who mainly left school and entered the labour market in the period following the global financial crisis.

Steve Davis (20:58)
That was David Redway. Well, now let's turn to hear some of the questions and answers involving Erica Smith and David Redway from the 'No Frills' 2020 Q&A session number two.

Steve Davis (21:11)
I'd like to start things off with a couple of questions for the panellists. The first one I'd like to put to you, David Redway, in your review of the LSAY data, you noted that around 2008 onwards wellbeing for the most recent cohorts is notably lower than for previous cohorts at the same age. Now, this is attributed to the GFC and other factors causing uncertainty in society, but I was surprised social media isn't mentioned, because there's a growing body of data that shows the ubiquitous use of social media is profoundly damaging to aspects of self and self-worth. Is that an oversight?

David Redway (21:52)
Thanks Steve. Look, I don't know that I entirely agree with you. I've kind of looked at some of the research, and I'm not an expert in this area, but I think the research points to both positive and negative effects of social media use, and the negative effects get a lot of attention, of course, for obvious reasons, but also positive effects, including the way young people use social media to engage in social issues, for instance, and to connect with each other, so there are a range of effects. With regard to the LSAY data on wellbeing, we have seen a bit of a downturn. We don't attribute that directly to the GFC, but it does take place in that context of a drop in labour market conditions, and more difficult labour market conditions generally, are the more difficult environment from which we don't seem to have fully recovered. So is one of the factors that we think is affecting young people's wellbeing during that period.

David Redway (22:49)
With regard to social media usage, unfortunately LSAY doesn't collect detailed information on social media usage. We have a core component of education and training participation, and we collect some additional information on young people's leisure activities and what they do with their spare time, and some of that covers social media, but it doesn't go into it in detail, so it's difficult to draw those connections out from LSAY. So it's something that we could consider for future ways of LSAY, but at the moment we are a bit limited in that area.

Steve Davis (23:22)
Erica Smith, I've noticed something else in the LSAY data from David's presentation that I'd like to put to you. The data shows that while full time work has diminished for all, you get the best resilience in the labour market if you've completed bachelor degree or higher, a Cert III, IV, or a diploma as part of an apprenticeship, or you finished Year 12. Now, the participants with the lowest outcomes of full-time work and the highest likelihood of casual work are people who've completed the Cert III, IV, or a diploma outside an apprenticeship. So what is it about VET in the context of apprenticeships that might explain this discrepancy?

Erica Smith (24:06)
Well, I think the first thing to say is there's a lot of variables in there, so I haven't seen the detailed data, so I don't know what discipline or industry area people's qualifications were in those that didn't have the better outcomes, and also some industries are more prone to employing casual workers rather than full-time permanent workers, and that could feed into it as well. The simplest explanation as to why people who've done apprenticeships are employed full time is that apprenticeships and traineeships are jobs, and usually full-time jobs, especially when undertaken after school rather than while at school. So that's really simple. If you've been doing a job, you do your apprenticeship and then you're employed full time at the end of it. And most people that do an apprenticeship or a traineeship are retained by their employers.

Erica Smith (25:01)
So that's the simple explanation, but I think the reason why people whose highest qualification is VET that's not an apprenticeship, that could be a lot more complex, and again, I'd have to look at the data carefully, and look at the dates that the young people were in that immediate post-school time, because there's been a lot of funding cuts for VET across the nation, so those have affected the availability of VET qualifications and I guess, to some extent, the standard to which they can be delivered. So there would probably be a lot of factors feeding into it.

Steve Davis (25:42)
Erica, one more thing I've noticed, I'd like, if possible, you reflect on the finding from the LSAY data in relation to your global research into apprenticeships. The LSAY data notes how parents play an important role in planning education pathways, and ensuring these pathways are followed to completion. Is the role of parental influence and support a consideration in planning, promoting, and managing apprenticeships?

Erica Smith (26:12)
Well, I think all the research on, so we're talking here mainly about young people, obviously, young people's transition from school to whatever they do after school, parents are normally found to be the greatest influences. And I'm just reflecting on a project I recently finished that was funded by the Victorian state government, where we certainly found that, and we found that parents were supposedly, reportedly, I should say, because we didn't actually research with parents, but according to the other stakeholders, parents were most likely to advise young people about what they knew about. So if they knew about going to university and doing a professional job, that's what they were good at advising at, aunts and uncles might also help as well, but if your dad was an apprentice, then that was a really good way to ensure that you ended up being an apprentice yourself.

Erica Smith (27:13)
Parents could also influence people negatively about work. So for example, reportedly, parents were influencing young people against undertaking work like retail because of the low status of that occupation, even though it could create a really good career for young people. So parents, I think, can be good and bad influences, but the main thing is that parents can't really advise very effectively on something they don't know about, so there's a lot of imaginary scenarios in parents' heads that they may communicate either consciously or unconsciously to their children. For example, in one of the companies that I research for that project, I think it was project number three on my presentation, I haven't actually reported on that, but it was a landscaping company and they were finding difficulty retaining the young people in landscaping apprenticeship, so they actually had the parents in for a meeting beforehand and talked it all through with them, and went through exactly what was involved in the apprenticeship. And they found once they'd done that, their retention rates started to improve.

Erica Smith (28:23)
I'll give you another example, which was from Mexico, from the G20 survey project, where the Mexican trade union movement reported that they often spoke at the union meetings about how their members could encourage their own children into apprenticeships. So there was actually that influence from a third party on the parents to encourage young people into apprenticeships. And I guess, in all my research, really there hasn't been a lot of work with parents, and people often do make assumptions about parents without actually researching them. So I think there's a right area for a research project there for somebody.

Steve Davis (29:06)
Nicole has a question for both of you. If you could give one single piece of advice to students contemplating their next educational career steps, and their parents, what would it be?

David Redway (29:17)
I mean, for me, personally, based on the data, I would say have high aspirations. You don't necessarily need to achieve your specific aspiration, but the higher your aspirations, the better your outcomes. So I would say aim high, but don't necessarily be too concerned if you don't achieve your specific aspiration.

Steve Davis (29:38)

Erica Smith (29:38)
So we're presumably thinking about Year 12 students, or young people coming up to leaving school, maybe earlier. I would say don't make a decision. That would be my firm advice from my research. Take a gap year and then decide, while you're doing the gap year, what you want to do. Just from the research we've done recently, seems to be a very effective thing to do, and people often change their mind a lot during the first year of post-school activity, and it's much better to have a year where your job is basically to change your mind rather than to start something and then find it didn't suit and then feel as though you'd failed. So I'd say don't decide anything, just do stuff for a year.

Steve Davis (30:26)
Would you take a gap here in this currently COVID scenario?

Erica Smith (30:31)
I hadn't really thought about it before, but maybe a really good time not to make plans because if you made plans, they might be disrupted anyway. So I don't see that it would make much difference.

David Redway (30:41)
The difficulty is that in this sort of environment where there aren't as many employment opportunities, then some young people may be forced into taking decisions, they may not have the luxury of being able to take a gap year in the current circumstance, which is a pity, but that's the situation that we're in.

Erica Smith (31:02)
Didn't mean take a gap year and not doing anything. Take a gap year, work. Yes, agreed.

Steve Davis (31:08)
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