So why is TAFE so stressful for trainers?

So I have read a couple of articles recently about how being a teacher at TAFE is so stressful, particularly at the moment and over the weekend I was having a discussion with a friend of mine (who doesn’t work in the sector) who only half-joking suggested that VET people had the life because they got all this extra time off that people in other job didn’t on top of their actual working hours being really flexible and things like that.  I corrected him and said that conditions like that really only existed in the public system and that most people working in VET in the non-public arena didn’t have those kinds of arrangements and really just worked the same kind of hours and had the same conditions as pretty much everyone else.  I found his response to this quite interesting he said,

Why? It’s no wonder that TAFE is stuffed then.

It actually got me thinking a little bit about this whole situation and in particular the rhetoric from the education unions about how working conditions for TAFE people have been so badly eroded, are under attack and how TAFE teachers are so stressed because of it.  Now this is not a swipe at TAFE teachers in general as I know that the vast majority of people who work in the TAFE system, like those in the non-public system are hard-working, committed people, who just want to achieve the best outcomes they can for their students.  However I am legitimately wondering what is so stressful;

  • Being asked to be at work every day of the working week?
  • Not getting 10 weeks leave a year?
  • The possibility that you might be made redundant?
  • Having to teach more than 3 days a week?
  • Being asked to do some more work?

Outside of the TAFE system this is simply called having a job.  Now I know that I am being a little naughty here and little tongue in cheek, but I really do want to know what is so stressful.

One of the other stressors that has been raised is the concept of increased casualisation of the TAFE workforce.  Sensible business practice suggests that you only employ enough staff permanent staff to cover the standard ongoing workloads, if there is more work, or specific skills or knowledge that is required that is not currently in the organisations, you hire it in, usually on casual, or contract basis, this is what happens everywhere.  It is a waste of organisational resources to have people sitting around with nothing to do, while you are still paying them, just on the off-chance that you might need them 3 months down the track.  As a lot of you know I ave been around the L&D, VET and organisation learning scene for quite a while now in a variety of roles and often these roles were contract roles (3-24 months) to do specific jobs, using my specific skill set.  This is also the case for a substantial amount of the people I know who work in the sector, with the exception of a few who have had long-term enterprise level positions, I think for most of us our careers have been a mix of permanent, part-time, casual and contract work, it is the way the industry works except it seems in the TAFE sector.   It seems to me that the only part of the VET sector where there appears to be this concept that a role would be a job for life, is the TAFE sector.

So here is my question;

Why are TAFE teachers so stressed?

Is it just that they are used to a certain level of conditions and expectations, or is it that really they aren’t and it is just a beat up by the unions or are there some actual stressors outside what would be expected if you worked outside the TAFE system?  I don’t know, but I would love to know what everyone else thinks.


Anyway that’s just my opinion

About pauldrasmussen
Paul Rasmussen is one of Australia’s most widely read Vocational Education and Training Commentators. He provides deep, unbiased analysis and insights not only on topical issues, but also on the underlying structure and policy which supports the industry. His writing and analysis has been praised for its uncompromising and thought provoking style and its ability to focus on the issues of real importance to the sector. He has advised various government departments and ministers, training providers, public and private organisations, not for profits and small to medium enterprises on the VET sector and the issues and opportunities facing it. He is one of Australia’s most awarded learning professionals and a regular speaker at a range of conventions and forums. His extensive experience in vocational education, and learning and development coupled with formal qualifications in philosophy, ethics, business and education management allow Paul to provide a unique view of the road ahead and how to navigate it.

12 Responses to So why is TAFE so stressful for trainers?

  1. TAFE was never going to change from the inside, but it is now being forced to change from the outside.

    There have been sparks of brilliance from the TAFE system for decades now, but they have often been snuffed out by those with a vested interest in mediocrity. The prevailing attitude was that if someone or some department is doing something brilliant and innovative, we better stop it before everyone is expected to be like that.

    In recent years, that resistance to excellence has started to break down, with islands of excellence emerging all over TAFEs in all states. This is sometimes on a small scale, such as an individual’s teaching practices, or a department offering an innovative new course or collaborating with employers, and sometimes even on an institutional scale. I believe that this recent change is mainly due to pressure from the outside – from the top down.

    Only now, are the current government-driven reforms pushing change from the top, and the organic cultural change from the bottom meeting in the middle. It’s those in the middle who are complaining about “stress” and “erosion of conditions”. The wave of innovation and accountability which they have seen coming so many years is finally here and they now have to sink or swim.

    The TAFE systems are not having a revolution. Rather, they are approaching the end of a stage in their evolution. Evolution always involves winners and losers… aka “stress”.

    • pauldrasmussen says:

      Martyn, I think you have hit the nail on the head of why certain members of the TAFE Community feel under ‘stress’

  2. essieb says:

    Paul, you make some interesting points. I work in the public VET system but not as a teacher. I do think that casualization generally does have a stressful impact on employees. If you’re recruited to do a specific job for a specific project and your contract is time-limited and you enjoy working in that way (or have got used to it over time), then great. If you’re put on repeated short-term contracts because your employer can’t make up their mind what they want or need or – worse – because their management skills are lousy and although they want you in the office on a long-term basis they use short-term contracts so that they can get rid of you easily if there’s a bump in the road… well that’s genuinely stressful, regardless of what industry you’re in. I don’t have a wide enough perspective to look at how this is happening across industries or across Australia or internationally, but the bit of it I see in my organisation I don’t like. If you put it together with lack of job opportunities in regional Australia then it’s REALLY lousy.

    • pauldrasmussen says:


      I would definitely agree that having short term contracts continually rolled over due to a lack of management decision making skills and an ability to forward plan is certainly very stressful and if that is happening then I think it shines a pretty strong light on those in management positions and whatever industry you are in that sort of thing is definitely stressful. You are also right that when the person is in a area where there are fewer job choices, it does become even more difficult.

  3. Peter A says:

    I worked in the TAFE system since 1981 – Yes, I was once one of those “Job for Life” TAFE staff that you sometimes hear about. I *could* have continued working for TAFE until retirement ( not that far away for me ), but I exited TAFE last year. Sure, I was offered a severance package and that was an inducement – but the truth was I had enough of working for TAFE.

    Of course , I can’t speak for the whole of TAFE – I can only relate the experiences I had in my small corner of the TAFE system – yet many of my concerns were echoed nationwide.

    Let’s start with conditions – to have someone with a permanent secure job with reasonable pay and generous leave conditions complain about their conditions seems greedy when so many good practitioners struggle to get good employment – but bear with me.

    Traditionally TAFE was based on the trade school model. Highly skilled and experienced “tradies” were employed to teach those skills to apprentices. The teaching qualifications were basic and what happened in the classroom was modeled on what happened on the shop floor / work-site/ job-site.

    At the time TAFE instructors were reasonably paid – after all, they had saleable trade skills AND they had teaching skills. Advanced lecturers had all this plus a teaching degree and experience in course development and management etc.
    TAFE instructors were paid reasonably.

    In the 90’s when apprenticeships died ( a combination of poor economic times and most businesses unwilling to commit to employing someone for the term of a 4 year apprenticeship) there was also a push for the professionalization of TAFE.

    Somebody somewhere in the TAFE hierarchy decided that TAFE “community-colleges” should stop being trade schools and and be more like businesses. Somewhere in this process credentialism became more important than skills and experience and all of a sudden TAFE lecturers who were highly skilled in both their chosen trade/ profession and teaching were paid the same as school teachers.

    Many TAFE lecturers stayed because teaching was a calling – despite the fact they could get better pay, more flexible working arrangements, and less government “crap” elsewhere.

    Over the next 20 or so years I have seen the emphasis in the practice of Vocational Education and Training change. When I started my teaching career in 1992 my teacher training focussed on *Teaching and Learning*. But with the implementation of competency based training and training packages one thing I have noted is the change in that emphasis from teaching and learning to *Training and Assessment*.

    On the surface this looks like a change in “buzzwords” but it is more profound than that.

    In reality, it meant that –
    • Auditors had more say in curriculum development that teaching professionals.
    • It meant that performance or success of a course was not based on the success of students, but how many competencies were awarded.
    • It meant that individual teachers were dis-empowered, no longer could they value add to the process unless it had a clear assessment outcome linked to it.

    I note that the article author is a leader in “Quality” – I observed that the implementation of “Quality” systems in the TAFE administration system stifled innovation. It was more difficult to trial innovative teaching and learning practices in the classroom. I also think that the constant auditing eroded the feeling that a TAFE lecturer was a trusted professional.

    This general disempowerment of the TAFE lecturer continued – the TAFE lecturer traditionally hired for his/ her recent industry skills, (and his/her ability to impart them), now has to use “canned” resources – In the 90s they were laminated lesson plans and corporate branded Powerpoints. In the noughties, the imparting of knowledge and skills was relegated to online tools, and the lecturer was further disempowered to a role of “tutor” – ie just solving learning problems the canned resources couldn’t cover.

    The job satisfaction from the research and development of a course, of delivering a training course that *you* developed, of seeing how *your* efforts changed the lives of *your* students – all that personal satisfaction was gone.

    For me, the final nail in the coffin was Skills for All. I believe Julia Gillard commissioned the Skills For All initiative in good faith – initially it seemed to put funds back into the VET system so that students who needed VET skills could access training at price they could afford.
    With the change in government – Skills for All has been used to completely “rip the guts out” of the funding that the TAFE system relied on.

    In my little corner of TAFE – I saw management and leadership that were more concerned with self-preservation and survival (of TAFE and careers ) than delivering a course or qualification that people were willing to pay for.

    After 20 years of tightening the budgetary belt yet again – I decided that enough was enough.

    I have never worked for a private RTO but being in charge of what *you* deliver, knowing in advance the funds committed to training, knowing that learning and business outcomes are more important that auditor tick-boxes – and just the ability to get on with the job instead of mountains of paperwork – well that sounds like heaven to me.

    Nothing like that seemed to exist in TAFE anymore – and that is why I think working in TAFE is so stressful.

    The author exited the TAFE system on June30 2014

    • pauldrasmussen says:

      Peter, I agree with you that what has happened over time is that the nature of, in particular, how people want to interact with TAFE has changed a lot in the last 20+ years. Even the concept of terms and turning up to class on particular days etc are concepts that are greatly outmoded, both individuals and organisations want their learning to be as flexible as possible. The other problem is that while the ‘benefits’ for TAFE teachers 20 years ago while still generous were probably within the realms of reasonable the world has moved on and TAFE hasn’t and neither it seems as organisations like the AEU. If in order for TAFE to be able to survive and provide the services that it should provide (and don’t get me wrong I think there is certainly a place for the public educator in the VET sector) there has to be wholesale changes and not just at a coal face level, there needs to be massive changes to the way in which TAFE’s are managed and administered.

      When it comes to keeping people happy it is as you point out often having control over the little things that makes a lot of difference. While we use standardised assessments and base materials, teachers are allowed to present that material and interact with the students in whatever what they view is the most appropiate. They are the experts after all.

  4. Bill Gammon says:

    Not sure what to say, but when I advertise a job we get numerous applicants from TAFE (sorry, aren’t most of them ‘Institutes’ now?). One of our current part time Lecturers can’t wait till we generate enough work for him to leave TAFE (“I’ve got to get out of there” – QLD).

    He has 22 hours face to face, with the rest ‘preparation’. We are a private RTO and he will work harder, get paid three times as much, and not have the administrative support he gets at TAFE.
    Having said that, he thinks he will be happier (we are sure he will be – it is a lot more satisfying not having the heady weight of management looking over your shoulder) as we won’t micro manage him, nor require the excessive paperwork that TAFE create. This is TAFE’s loss, our gain.

    We are supporters of public education (perhaps unusual for a private RTO), and TAFE should be funded and supported, but I have to say that I have found that a lot of TAFE teachers have been institutionalised and really need to maintain some ‘currency’. Unfortunately they are often not supported to do this.

    We had some people doing a new website and they came up with a slogan – “Not like TAFE”. Whilst they were right, it wasn’t very politic to use this, so we declined the suggestion.

  5. Brad Hutchins says:

    I once worked for the Department of Main Roads (DMR), I was called a ‘shovel leaner’! I worked 48 hours a week for most weeks at about 10% less income then the ‘capitalist’ (perception) private sector. I never leaned on a shovel!

    I worked in the private sector as a trainer; 30 to 60 hours per week, mobile phone, company car and 100k per year!

    I now do, on average, 55 hours per week minimum. No mobile phone, no company car and about 20k less a year, comparatively. Whilst I have the ability to have 10 weeks a year non attendance it is more like 5 to 6 with little choice when to take leave except the the most expensive times of the year. We train beyond the Training Package and produce World Champions. We don’t ‘tick and flick’ like ‘other’ RTOs (perception). I’m a TAFE teacher!

    Oh by the way, there are two groups of people I never believe upfront, Politicians and the Media!

    It is all about Perception!

    • pauldrasmussen says:

      Brad, to be honest that was one of the reasons why I bought the whole subject up, I know for the most part TAFE teachers do a great job and produce great outcomes (just like non-public providers) and what worries me is the perceptions that are generated when we see media statements from places like the AEU about how hard it is to be in TAFE, how much stress there is and how conditions are being eroded. The problem is that people outside tend to only see the ‘perceived’ great conditions etc and therefore it becomes really easy for the public perception to becomes massively skewed. I actually think that the AEU and other organisations are doing TAFE teachers and TAFE in general a massive disservice by continuing to rabbit on about it and to place the blame for it the non-public sector and others. The problem is as you say one of perception and I wanted to shine to light on that and see what happened. Thanks for your comment

  6. Tony says:

    Paul, given that some full-time teachers. head-teachers at TAFE can go and take up a second teaching task or other consulting work using TAFE phone systems during the week TAFE working hours.
    It is an amazing privilege, which no other full timer has in any corporate life. It is not possible for the non-VET staff at TAFE. The casuals do it by necessity and the type of short-term employment because that is the only choice from the unplanned contract life.
    It is a CLAN system in place for Politics and Power, Nepotism, which has lead to bullying, harassment and stress among the causal, but not as much among the full-time VET staff; because Union is more sympathetic to full-timers (management). Cheers

  7. Adam says:

    Who said TAFE Teachers are stressed, seems to me your making things up, just like all the crap you hear about the TAFE sector, we can’t offer what industry wants flexable training. As we all know every job has it’s ups and downs. TAFE has gone through changes just like many other government departments to save captail expenditure. We offer great training still, teachers work hard to achieve this and when we have time off its called non attendance time, this time is used to develop our resources,work on lesson plans, prepare for teaching. The 7 P’s ……Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

    • pauldrasmussen says:

      Adam. I dont disagree with you. However when this post was originally written there was a lot of rhetoric particularly from the AEU about how streesed TAFE staff were and how they suffering because of the private sector, government cuts and a range of other thing. I have and continue to be a supporter of TAFE. what this sector needs is to have strong players in both the public and non-sector. For every bit of perceived TAFE bashing that is going on there is much much more private provider bashing occurring.

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