We need to talk about VET.

We need to talk about VET.

On our kindest of days, most Australians believe that vocational education and training (VET) is ‘stuck in the past’.

Recent research shows that only 24% of people think VET courses are focussed on jobs of the future.

While over half of Australian employers are employing VET graduates, the Victorian Skills and Training Employer Survey (2014) found that 68% of employers indicated their workforce lacked job-specific skills, even when workers had appropriate vocational qualifications.

Recent data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research Student Outcomes Survey shows that only 30% of VET grads end up working in occupations for which they have been trained and qualified; and less than 40% of students who commence study or training complete it.

Is it any wonder that national TAFE enrollments have fallen by 6.5%between 2016 and 2017, from 617,000 students to 577, 200? A report from the Mitchell Institute earlier this year suggests that participation in vocational studies is predicted to fall from 5.3% to 1.3% by 2031.

Yet more than 1.2 million workers are in the technical and trade sector, representing more than 13% of the entire Australian workforce and these industries are only expected to grow in the next 10-15 years.

Further, the Commonwealth Department of Employment’s occupational projections forecast that an additional 990,000 jobs are expected to be created by 2020 in Australia, but just 70,000 of those jobs will require only a senior secondary level education. Importantly, almost half of those jobs – 437,000 – will require Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma level qualifications.

Across the economy as work is being transformed, VET could be absolutely vital to future proofing our workforce. With 50% of the student population under 30 years of age, TAFE should be a first rather than last choice for many young Australians.

With a direct connection to industry and the changing demands of employers, VET institutions are uniquely positioned to prepare current and future workers for an economy where not just technical and vocational skills are required but where entrepreneurial, problem solving, collaborative, creativity and emotional and cultural intelligence are being privileged and sought after.

There’s a significant once-in-a-generation opportunity for the technical and further education sector to create an offering for the community, which builds business and employer confidence in the training system and the qualifications of current and future employees.

To do this, we must urgently reimagine and transform VET to deliver a learning experience aligned to the new world of work.

These institutions have a central role to play in upskilling and retraining our workforce.

The New Work Order report series from the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) shows that by 2030 every job across the economy is expected to be transformed by automation. Careers are no longer linear; we need to be equipped with the skills to navigate a portfolio career – where a 15 year old today could potentially have 17 different jobs in five different industries.

In innovating, testing and showcasing new learning models for industry and vocational education we can increase the long term employability of graduates and better meet the immediate needs of employers.

With this in mind, there are three practical actions we can take to create better outcomes for young people:

First, revitalise the tired and stigmatised apprenticeship system with new pathways from school (look to VCAL in Victoria and Higher Pathways in NSW) to apprenticeships. We can complement our existing systems with new models including Higher Apprenticeships from the UK which provide a national apprenticeship pathway to non-traditional trades/ industries such as ICT, finance, retail and so on. Then set bold, new and realistic national participation targets.

Second, fund and scale new vocational education approaches created in partnership by industry, community and educational institutions. One such example includes a project being led by South West Institute of TAFE (SWTAFE) in Warrnambool, Victoria.

The initiative comprises a number of key elements: a new training model, in partnership with the healthcare and social assistance sector, will ensure young people are engaged early in developing the right skills for this high growth sector; a tool which will accurately inform job-seekers about the jobs, skills and TAFE courses that can support them in their career trajectories; and a new dynamic learning space where students can develop technical skills in an immersive environment alongside local entrepreneurs developing ideas for micro-businesses to provide context for their learning.

Third, completely redesign careers education and management across schools, TAFE, universities and workplaces to play an integrated information, networking and brokering role. Career navigation and management is a new profession with a new set of imperatives. The new careers adviser job description of the 21 century is creative! And one where pathways and connections are illuminated and created. Online will take you so far, but in the end we are a networked country and it’s people who back and connect people to opportunities in Australia and beyond.

Our goal in this must be clear and precise. For Australia to thrive we must support our young people; harnessing their passions and abilities, providing a range of learning pathways to real work, and growing their skills and capabilities as lifelong learners in a changing world.

Jan Owen AM