Apprenticeships – Time for a Change

This has been something which has been on my mind for a few months now and I have had a number of conversations with people inside and outside the Apprenticeship system or more precisely the apprenticeship management system.  The main arm of the management of apprenticeships and traineeships at the moment is the Australian Apprenticeship Support network or the ASSNs which is an evolution of the previous systems that were in place to help everyone involved, employer, student, provider and the government to get the best outcomes out of the system.  Before I go on, it is important to note that I am not talking about apprenticeships and traineeships themselves or how they are structured, delivered or anything like that. What I want to talk about today is the future of the ASSN and whether or not it is a model which is viable to take us forward into the 2020’s or if it really is something which has had its day. This should also not be taken as an attack on the organisations which form the ASSN or the work that they do.  It is certain that they, for the most part do a fantastic job.  The issue is whether or not the approximately $190 million which the government providers these organisations to provide this service is the simplest, most effective and most efficient method and whether not there may be better ways of delivering this service.

Why I say this is because in this digital world, it seems a little difficult for me to understand the need to have people driving around, talking to employers and providers, recruiting, mentoring and all of the other things they seem to do, when the underlying process should be very simple.  Now there has been a move to streamline the system with the AASN now utilising a lot of electronic forms and data, rather than the clearly time consuming and costly paper system which used to exist and this in itself points to the crux of the idea and the problem.

It seems to me that we may have an over complicated system providing a solution to a problem which is quite straightforward.  There are in essence only three parties which are involved in the apprentice or traineeship, that is the student, the employer and the provider (RTO).  Surely in this age of digital disruption some sort of self service model for employers, where they simply registered to become a employer for an apprentice or trainee and picked the RTO they wanted to use from a drop down box of government contracted providers, with a portal for students to then apply for the available roles is something which is not beyond the realm of imagining let alone creating.  There seems to be little or no reason why contracts and agreements, payments etc could not be handled through the same system.  All that would then be required would be a group of people to ensure, that the various requirements of the whole process were being met and that it was producing the outcomes which were required.

Now I understand that I may have grossly oversimplified the entire apprenticeship process, however that was to some extent my purpose here.  Why would I do that?  To point out that I think the days of the AASN are numbered.  I think that within the next 2-5 years we will see a significant shift in the way in which these services are delivered to stakeholders on behalf of the government. We will see more self service style options and more centralised management of the the system, why?  Because it is cheaper and has the potential to be more efficient.

If I was an AASN organisation I would be thinking about where my next income stream was coming from.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Paying for VET – The funding equation

So I have been thinking a fair bit recently about funding in the VET sector and different models and approaches.  A lot of this has been prompted by the release of the new QLD VET investment program and the issues with what has happened with funding in South Australia and the discussions about that, as well as the recent comments by Senator Birmingham and some of the insights which came out of the panel I chaired at EduTech.

As we are all aware there are a range of ways in which VET is paid for in Australia from income contingent loans (yes I know they are not technically funding as such but let’s go with it anyway), to skills shortage lists and priority areas, individual based funding and programs aimed at producing specific outcomes for specific groups.  When we add to this direct funding for public providers in what ever form that takes and apprenticeship and traineeship schemes it is no wonder the average person has difficulty in figuring out who is paying for what.

Firstly lets consider income contingent loans (VET-FEE HELP). I am actually a proponent of this style of ‘funding’ particularly for higher level programs and to be honest if it wasn’t for this kind of system I would never have got the education that I currently have (admittedly my education is from the Higher Education sector rather than VET but the same principle applies).  The advantage to these programs is that it allows people to undertake the study that they wish to, without relying on whether or not that funding is considered to be a priority by the government.  It allows a strong freedom of choice around both what is studied and where and how that study is undertaken.   There are of course problems with this style of system (outside of issues around the cost of a program) the biggest of which is that employment outcomes from these programs may not be as high as they are in other more directed programs.  Why?  Well because people get to choose what it is that they want to study regardless of whether or not there will be an employment outcome at the end of the program.  Is this really a problem though?  I am not so sure that it is, providing people entering into these courses of study understand that there may not be a significant employment outcome for them as a result of undertaking the course, or that they may need to take employment in a different area first, before they are able to utilise their chosen program of study.

What about so-called entitlement style funding, where individuals who meet certain criteria are able to have their training subsidised  by the government.  This funding is almost always tied to those skills shortage and priority occupations lists, which means that while an individual may be able to obtain their training for a very small out-of-pocket expense, they are limited in the areas in which they can study, if they meet the eligibility criteria.  This kind of funding is interesting because it accounts for a fair proportion of the funding provided to the sector by the State governments and different people in different states may therefore have not only different eligibility criteria, but also a different choice of programs which they can undertake, as well as differing choices around providers and co-contribution rates.  The upside of these programs, if well-managed and run would seem to be a much stronger connection to employment outcomes and workforce participation particularly at more entry-level positions, the problems of course are that not everyone will meet the eligibility criteria and even for those people who do, the courses which are available to them, may not the courses which they wish to undertake.

Specific purpose programs (like Queensland’s Skilling Queenslanders for work program) are similar to entitlement style programs, with one key difference, they are designed with usually quite specific outcomes in mind.  If we take the Queensland program as an example, it is heavily focused on youth, particularly those youth are disadvantaged in some way and entry-level qualifications.  It is designed to increase the level of workforce participation in group which currently has a high level of unemployment.  Of course youth (people under 25) are not the only targets of these programs, they are also targeted at anyone who is disadvantaged and who has had difficulty in obtaining work (medium to long-term unemployed).  There are a couple of advantages to these sorts of programs, firstly they are designed and funded with a specific outcome, which usually means more funding for supporting services which may assist students to actually achieve the result that the program is designed around.  Being specifically designed also means that providers and other who are involved also have a very clear idea of what the goals of the program are and what they need to achieve.  The disadvantages are the same of those for entitlement style funding in that there are very specific criteria for participation and in terms of what programs are offered.

Traineeships and Apprenticeships are a slightly different fish from the other styles of funding, primarily because before being able to access these types of funding one must be employed or employed as part of the program.  They also in most cases carry an incentive component for the employer in order for make it more attractive for them to take on a trainee (and the additional costs which may be associated with them) than may have normally been the case.  The advantages to these programs are obvious, people are employed as a result of them and they are specifically aimed at the student completing the qualification in question and continuing to be part of the workforce.  The problem with these programs tends to be the amount of paperwork and regulation involved for all parties concerned.

Then finally we have direct funding to public providers.  I am going to be really open here and say that I think that the vast majority of funding for VET should be contestable.  It should go to the provider who is chosen by individuals and employers, sectioning off parts of funding programs specifically for the public providers simply limit choice and creates state-run monopolies.  That being said however I sincerely believe that there should be funding provided to TAFE, it should however be transparent, not hidden under quotas and things like that.  It should also be for specific purposes, where there is market failure, or where there is a lack of providers, or specific skills or facilities are required.  There should also be funding for the up keep of government-owned assets (where those assets are being utilised or are needed for the future.  However like with non-public providers operational expenses should be met through the utilisation of  contestable funding and fee for service delivery.

So the question which comes from all of this for me is what works best and is there any realistic way in which we could simplify things to make things easier for everyone.  Problematically I don’t think there is, each of the styles of funding have a specific purpose behind them, which also means that it is difficult to determine whether one type of funding is better than another.  I do however think that often entitlement style programs are the most problematic, primarily because of the occupation and course lists which support them.  For these style of funding programs to be effective there needs to be a tight link between the courses on offer and the needs of the workforce, because if there is not they are doomed to not meet the needs of anyone.  The other issue with these style of programs is getting the eligibility criteria right, one of the criticisms of the higher skills part of the QLD VET investment plan is that holding a Certificate IV  in anything disqualifies you from gaining funding for a diploma or above level qualification, regardless of whether or not it is a qualification in the same sector.   Now I am not suggesting that these types of funding aren’t useful and don’t have a place, they do, governments just need to be very careful about the programs they subsidise and the criteria for students.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

If not Industry Lead then what. Training packages, VET and the industry connection

With the VET reform process has come a lot of questions around the creation, development and management of the Training Packages which make up the VET system and there are currently two discussion papers released by the Department in relation to this.  Now even at this early point in the discussion there as been some robust discussion around the training packages, their content and their development.

When I start to think about this issue a couple of things come to mind for me, the first is, that I am not terribly interested in how the Training Packages were originally developed, they are what we have and the discussion should I thing focus on what is the best path forward from here.  I don’t think there is much appetite out there for the wholesale reinvention of training packages, but please correct me if I am wrong.

The other thing that sits heavy on my mind is this;

If not industry led, then what?

As most of you know I am a strong supporter of the VET system in this country and it capacity to increase workforce participation, provide a skilled workforce for the current and future needs of industry.  However the only way in which it can meet the needs of industry is if industry are the central to informing what the required skills and knowledge.  If we look at the first principle from which the reform process is being undertaken  namely;

The national system of qualifications must provide a reliable signal to employers about the skills an individual has, and must be underpinned by industry-defined occupational standards that:
• reflect the technical and generic skills and knowledge that are required in jobs;
• provide a basis for consistent assessment of competence in those skills
across the training system;
• provide a mechanism for the national portability of those skills; and
• are flexible enough to cater to the needs of different individuals, employers
and industries, including as these change over time.

A couple of really important things come out of this first principle for me and these are the ideas of providing a reliable indicator to employers about the skills of individuals, the technical and generic skills and knowledge required for Jobs and flexible enough to meet changing needs over time.

For me as I have always said, the VET system is about at its base vocational outcomes, it is about providing matching the skills and knowledge of students to the needs of the industries in which they are going to be employed and for me if the skills of the graduates do not map onto industry need and expectation then the system has failed.

The question that comes out of this for me is, if the system is related to vocational outcomes, the needs and expectations of industry, how can this be achieved without the strong, connected and engaged input from industry.  One of strong criticisms of the current system is that it struggles to keep up with changes in industry and employer  practices.  This along with an apparent mismatch (in a number of qualifications) between the skills and knowledge of graduates with the needs of employers and overly complex and bloated training packages shows what happens when is not as engaged and connected to the process of development as they could be.

So if at least part of our goal is to ensure that graduates of the VET system have meaningful employment outcomes from their qualification and that industry and employers get the skilled workforce that they need both now and in the future it seems to be absolutely necessary for industry to be a the leader in the development of what is required in the various units and qualifications that make up the training packages and that means that there needs to be more, better, consistent and real, actual engagement  and consultation between industry and whoever ends up developing the packages themselves.

The Australian Training Awards and the importance of VET

As a lot of you are already aware I attended the Australian Training Awards last week and was fortunate enough to named as the winner of the Leadership in VET Quality  for 2013.

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These awards really are a night of celebration for the Vocational Education and Training industry in Australia and the support shown by various Australian Governments over the last 20 years has been amazing, as has the work of the wonderful and equally amazing Training Awards team.  They do a stunning job each year and deserve as much congratulations as the winners and finalists.

There is something far more important than just a celebration going on here though, particularly for the Students (apprentices, trainee’s etc).  This night is something that both changes lives and puts a spotlight the quality of vocational education in this country.  If you have any doubt of the quality of training in this country and the fact that it is of such immense important to the students we interact with then you need to go and watch the videos on this page.  Real Stories Real Achievements.  It is also a shame that a lot of you won’t hear the stories straight from the mouths of last years winners of the changes in their lives that the awards and their qualifications have bought them;  from starting their own business and being and agribusiness ambassador to Argentina and Russia to packing up their bags straight after the awards to go to England and Europe to work in some of the biggest and best hairdressing salons in Europe.

Qualifications change lives, the work we do with our students, be they school based or mature aged makes a real difference, it allows them to do things and have careers that some of them would never have had access to without their qualifications and the support of their teachers and trainers and everyone else in the industry.

People whinge and moan about the state of the VET industry in this country, but if you want to see the state of the industry, the importance of it and how much of a difference it makes you have to look no further than the results of the Australian Training Awards.

Final Report Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce

Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce Final Report

So it is out; the final report of the Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce.  If you are involved in VET in QLD or anywhere in Australia for that matter this report is definitely worth looking over, and in some cases reading quite closely.  While we have yet to see exactly what the QLD Government will do with the results of the report it is clear that particularly around the restructuring of TAFE campuses in QLD to reduce their overall number, that some of the recommendations put them at odds with the Federal Government (though this is not surprising really).

What does the report say and is there anything in it that we did not really expect it to say.  At first reading I don’t think there is.  There is certainly nothing unexpected about a contestable industry demand driven model, nor the need to restructure TAFE and make it more commercially viable and the criticisms of Skills Queensland simply represent the fact that they were not given the power they need to have in order to be effective, by the previous government.

Let’s then have a look at some of the recommendations of the report;

Recommendation 2.1 –  The establishment of a truly industry led Skills Commission for Queensland.  I think  this is a good thing particularly given recommendation 2.3 which would see the Commission take over all of QLD’s funding functions.  My only concern here is the make up of the Commission, and the potential under representation of the Health and Community Services Sector.  Why; well it is simple we can talk about the wealth generated by the mining, construction and tourism industry, but even when you look at the figures in the report itself (on Page 27) the Health and Social Assistance Sector in the year to August 2012 had employment growth more than double that of the Mining industry.  Regardless of the amount of money the mining sector makes, it is the Health and Community Services Sector then is and will continue to be the biggest growing employer in both the State and the Country and any approach to funding of qualifications, skill sets (Recommedation 2.7) and like should be representative of that fact. The other point to be made about 2.7 is that if more of the funding is targeted at organisations rather than at individuals there will I think be an overall better result in terms of completions and employment outcomes.

Stronger links with VET in Schools (Recommendation 2.9) and a better link to employment outcomes for High School Students by alignment of qualification outcomes with industry need is something I have been advocating for a while now.  Again particularly when you look at the figures that show massive increases in some areas (800+% for arts and entertainment and 300+ for fitness related qualifications) and again Health and Community Services not even being in the top ten.  And I get it being a fitness instructor or a game designer is a much sexier career at 17-18 than being a counsellor or a support worker, but again that is where the jobs are going to be and if we are going to invest and encourage school students to look at career options and qualifications lets link them seriously to employment outcomes.

So what about TAFE, Recommendation 3.4 really stands out; the need to address the award agreements for TAFE workers is long overdue, both in the direct training area and in the administration areas.  Better management of assets (Recommendation 3.7) and a rationalisation of Campuses is also something that is badly needed in a number of areas as is the move to a more commercialised viewpoint the establishment of a new parent entity (Recommendations 3.8 and 3.9)

While the recommendations around the streamlining and the ability to transfer training contracts between employers and others (Recommendations 4.2 and 4.8 in particular) will assist in a number of areas, providing more funding to organisations to be able to recruit, train and retain, their staff would see much better outcomes I think.  This is evidenced by the Enterprise RTO experience where completion rates in the high 90% are the norm due to the fact that it is in the interests of the ERTO and the Organisation itself to hire the right staff in the first place, train them correctly and retain them.  Again the Government needs to look carefully at the Traineeship and Apprenticeship model and understand that it is no longer simply trade qualifications that are necessary components of this system but things like Aged Care, Community Services, Disability and Nursing Qaulifications that underpin and continue to underpin the Governments Four Pillars.

So if you haven’t managed to read the report it is definitely worth a look over, and I would really like to hear other people’s thoughts on the recommendations.

How long does it take to be Competent?

Nominal Hours, Time Served and Competency

How long does it take to be competent?  I have had several discussions recently (yes I do tend to get myself involved in a lot of discussion, you may have noticed that by now) about work placements, trainee and apprenticeships, job readiness and how long it actually takes for someone to be considered to be competent at a task or with a skill.

There has been a lot of discussion over recent times about the what could be call ‘time served’ apprenticeship model, where student were expected to spend 3 or so years working while training in their chosen trade.  Criticisms of this have been made on the grounds that at least some of the students could have been deemed and in fact were competent long before their apprenticeship time was up.  At the other end of the scale we have seen criticisms of the ‘2 week industry placement’ that we are seeing in the delivery of some aged care and community services courses where concerns are raised about whether that is enough time for someone to demonstrate their competence in a range of situations.

There are lots of areas, psychology for example, where not only is there a need for students to undertake a lengthy internship prior to be recognised as being competent practitioners, but quite strict guidelines for continuing professional development in order to maintain such recognition, now admittedly the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be a registered Psychologist may be much wider than those required for a Certificate III in Aged Care, however we still need to ensure that whoever we grant qualifications to are actually competent in the range of skills we say they possess.

Our staff, on average take about 8-12 months to complete a Certificate IV level qualification.  They attend on average two days of face to face training every 4-6 weeks, and work on the assessment tasks from the Units of Competency covered in the face to face training, while they are back in the workplace.  A large number of these assessment tasks involve their managers or supervisors observing them undertaking tasks and activities and providing them with feedback on how satisfactorily these tasks were undertaken.  There are written tasks and projects, interview, role plays and a range of other activities which they undertake in the presence of an accredited assessor.  Importantly by the end of this process I am confident that every person we say is competent and issue a qualification or a statement of attainment to is actually competent.

Could we do it quicker;  Yes certainly we could.  Would I be as confident; No I don’t think I would be.  Why; because it would be much easier for someone to slip through the cracks so to speak.

Could we do 2 weeks straight of face to face training and then send them back into the workplace to do their assessments?  We could but I fear we would have substantially lower completion rates and I think the learning transfer back into the workplace would not be as effective.  I say this because even after two-day of face to face training most of the staff have more than enough information to keep their minds spinning for  4-6 weeks and I think that trying to cram more information in there may well be counter productive.

So I am interested to know how long do you think it takes before we can really be confident to say that someone is competent and how long should it take a student to complete say and average Certificate IV qualification.

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