Is It Too Radical to Require a Workplace?

I ‘joined’ the VET sector back in 1999 in a local not-for-profit VET provider (remember Skillshares?).

We were running primarily ‘jobseeker’ style courses.

We had three key focuses – get people skills; get people a job; get a contract in the next tender round. I’m pleased to say that they were almost always in that order.

I didn’t have much experience in VET at the time. My only exposure had been a wholly poor previous experience as a student at my local TAFE (Don’t fret – I have had many wonderful experiences with TAFE over the years since as both student and teacher – I am reliably informed that in my teenage years [at least] I was not a great student to teach).

Working with Centrelink, early Job Network providers and other community organisations, we would run a bevy of classroom-style training programs in everything from ‘dress to success’ and interview techniques, through to computer skills, retail sales and even business accounting courses. And invariably, as we knew workplace experience and industry connections were the key to getting jobs, we would fight the never-ending battle of ensuring that every one of our students was secured in a work placement. Sometimes for a week only; sometimes many weeks.

Sometimes we didn’t succeed – our ‘star’ students would get work before we could finalise a work placement and would leave the course. But we also got very good at converting these new employees into traineeships to continue their study.

After several years I jumped out into a ‘Private RTO’ that did very little classroom delivery; with all students being employees studying at work – often again on traineeship programs. This exposure to workplace-based delivery built a strong understanding of the key connection between ‘competence’ and ‘workplace performance.’

Then I was fortunate to start my own private VET Provider with a group of partners. And we delivered various courses in a similar vein. We were lucky to be supporting the ‘traineeship wave’ in the early 2000s as all manner of individuals – some of whom hadn’t studied for decades – were able to engage in a flexible VET offering and upgrade their skills while at work. The very definition of ‘applied learning.’

And we also delivered various jobseeker courses – government-funded, and employer-backed – tailored to key needs in the regions we served. Being a tourist-focused area, this invariably involved a wide range of tourism, customer service and hospitality industry courses.

One of our first programs was in ‘The Channel’ – the stretch of island beauty below Hobart, Tasmania. Here we worked with the local publican, renting the hotel during the day hours in the early part of each week when it was normally closed, and delivered a range of hospitality skills to a group of unemployed individuals keen to get back into the workforce. Weeks of part-time ‘classroom’ delivery in the hotel was followed by weeks of work placement with each student hosted in a local tourism and hospitality business. The program finished with a celebration and boat cruise in the channel – a picture of the group and trainers taken that day was framed and hung in our head office reception for the next decade. The individuals achieved 90% employment outcome, and we were proud to have supported their journey.

The reason I ‘wax lyrical’ about this remote past is that at some point in the last decade I have woken to a VET sector that may have forgotten that ‘the workplace’ is central to the delivery of what we do. A sector in crisis – with major scandal, political hot potatoes, endless reviews (and upgrades) and further regulation on the way.

And a large volume of ‘short duration’ course delivery without the support of a workplace via employment or work placement.

Depending on your view, there has been discussion of ‘crisis’ as far back as the mid-2000’s – perhaps earlier – as AQTF 2007 was on the horizon and calls ‘for a Commonwealth Regulator to be established’ soon after. The issue of interpreting the requirements of training packages seemingly had become a major problem while the Australian Government both removed the requirement for university pathways for VET FEE-HELP courses (resulting in an explosion of fast, expensive, often online-only Diplomas) while also removing large sections of employer incentives for formal qualification delivery at work (cutting in half our Apprenticeships and Traineeships system).

For the last decade, I have been often asked “What would you do to ‘fix’ the system.”

We have had any number of reviews on a Commonwealth and State level over the period – including the next wave of reviews now underway – considering in the main exactly this question.

My response has always been the same – there is one simple thing that government(s) could implement that would go a long way to “fixing” the problem.

Mandate that every VET course requires employer involvement.

All students would either already be employees. Or the students would be supported with a mandatory work placement.

Consider the impact of industry engagement, the relevance of applied learning and skills, ease of application of learning and also of assessment approaches. Every student would be supported by a workplace supervisor, in addition to their trainer and assessor. Every student would be able to translate their learned skills into workplace performance. Every assessment, every student deemed competent, would be in part via actual workplace performance, supported by an actual employer.

Twenty years back, we knew this was the way to build and confirm real skills. And also, in the case of job seekers, to get them a job.

The current National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development sets out the broad objective for VET:

A VET system that delivers a productive and highly skilled workforce and which enables all working age Australians to develop the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and contribute to Australia’s economic future; and supports the achievement of increased rates of workforce participation

I can’t think of any better way to support the VET system to achieve its stated goal than to require VET courses to be directly connected to a workplace.

We note that in recent years the government has headed in this direction, now with multiple qualifications having mandated workplace/work placement hours to be undertaken before the particular courses can be completed.

For example, CHC33015 Certificate III in Individual Support (Release 2) requires a minimum mandated 120 hours. In NSW, School-Based Trainees need to undertake a minimum of 700 hours in order to complete their qualification for inclusion on their HSC.

The Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System Report (The Joyce Review) is also heading in this direction with recommendations including:

“Specifying benchmark training hours and any required work placement hours in entry-level qualifications to ensure all provision, including to secondary students, clearly meets the needs of employers for entry-level workers

As someone who has spent 20 years delivering primarily workplace-supported VET courses, building the skills and capability needed via the use of formal VET programs, I can’t help but wonder if this is the “fix” that the VET sector needs.

Or if implemented would this be just the next in a line of ‘blunt’ government responses to complex sector issues?

Published 25 November 2019

What do you think?

Join the discussion of this and other Challenges at the VET PD Group – Community of Practice.

About the Author:

Phill Bevan is a seasoned education expert, working with hundreds of public, not-for-profit, private and enterprise-based institutions over the last two decades spanning schools, universities, VET providers and corporate L&D functions.

Masters qualified with specialisation in competency-based assessment, Phill offers a wealth of practical understanding, knowledge and expertise across key education & capability operating requirements. With real-world application of all aspects of business, including strategic & business planning, marketing & development, technology implementation, risk management and WHS, Phill has demonstrated success in senior management roles across a range of business types and projects. As a qualified auditor, Phill has leveraged these skills in numerous enterprises to support issue identification and robust business improvement projects.

Phill has held numerous directorships in corporate enterprises and not-for-profit organisations, and various professional recognitions including as a Fellow of the Australian Human Resources Institute and Certified Management Consultant with Exemplar Global.

Having established, grown and successfully exited a number of businesses, including a national BRW Fast 100 start-up, in recent years Phill has consulted on numerous national projects with well-known brands and ASX Top 100 companies, as well as providing support for local small business operators in all aspects of managing and growing their businesses.

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