Skills for Australia: Building a future-fit workforce

Putting employers at the heart of Australia's qualifications and training system

Skills for Australia: Building a future-fit workforce

Putting employers at the heart of Australia's qualifications and training systems.

The digital revolution has sparked the opportunity for major shifts in power across the global economy, moving the focus from physical assets to knowledge. For Australia, a country whose historic growth has often come from the resources sector, the imperative for creating a new workforce that’s equipped to tackle the challenges of a digital future is more powerful than ever.

Sara Caplan believes that reforming the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is an essential first step. The CEO of Skills for Australia, a PwC organisation that is collaborating with industries and businesses to ensure that our training and qualification system reflects workplace realities today and in future, says that there’s a deep rift between today’s educational standards and tomorrow’s jobs.

“There’s a real mismatch when it comes to training that is offered, the qualifications young people acquire and the modern jobs that are actually available,” explains Caplan, who drew on previous experience working on VET reform alongside the UK government to spearhead Skills for Australia in January this year. “At the moment, we tend to train people in traditional sectors that are really popular or well-funded and not necessarily the innovative sectors that are crying out for new skills. [Skills for Australia] is based on the belief that systems work better when industry’s voice is stronger and those with an eye on the future have a bigger say in driving the training agenda.”

Ensuring the right fit

Skills for Australia, a Skills Service Organisation supported by the Australian Government, liaises with industry bodies, businesses and training organisations – including TAFEs – to make sure that employees have access to training programs to equip them with the skills that employers actually need today, and will need in future. Caplan says that talking to industry, gathering feedback on emerging issues and using these to shape training requirements and practical, deliverable qualifications is critical in Australia’s quest to put the employer voice at the heart of the skills agenda. It also helps guarantee a national workforce that is future-fit and employable both here and on the international stage.

“We constantly receive calls from industry who have issues with the way training currently works and want to be involved in reform,” says Caplan, who – along with the Skills for Australia team – will use these industry-driven insights to tailor a four-year plan aimed at incorporating this knowledge into the strategy for creating skills and driving change across the sectors it manages. “We get a lot of people saying, ‘you have this qualification in financial services but there are a couple of units that are wrong that need changing.’ Or ‘no-one is offering this course because of this reason.’ We have an ongoing dialogue with the training industry just to make sure that things are working on the ground.”

Empowering an agile workforce

At present, Skills for Australia is focussed on supporting some of the priority platforms for Australia’s success - business services, financial services, creative industries, information and communications technology, education and printing, but Caplan says that the attributes employers seek when it comes to future workers have very little do to with the industries themselves.

“There’s a lot of consistency across the six sectors we are working across,” she explains. “Preparing for the future, all the industries we are working with say that it will be about communication, entrepreneurial spirit, creative thinking and exploiting digital knowledge. In the past, the employees received industry training but that’s almost the underpinning part because a lot of employers now have bespoke programs and will train in-house anyway. It’s also about understanding how to foster an innovative and adaptive mindset.”

Unsurprisingly, Caplan maintains that digital acumen is increasingly high on employers’ lists. And while a June 2015 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) revealed that technological change would see nearly five million jobs replaced in the next two decades, Is Australia Facing the Risk of Complacency?, a March 2016 report by PwC, found that investment in a skilled workforce and an increased appetite for innovation and entrepreneurship is in intrinsic to Australia’s growth prospects – despite the country’s historic, winning economic record.

For Caplan, Australia’s skills gap isn’t related to training failures alone. She says that industries are often affected by a public image that is out of sync with reality, deterring potential employees from entering the field. “For example, the printing industry is currently undergoing radical change,” she says, adding that driverless technology, data analytics and robotic process automation will impact the jobs that are in high demand in five years time. “A few days ago, we met with representatives from the printing industry and they were telling us that you are going to be able to open your fridge door and the packaging is going to be able to tell you – verbally – that your milk is out of date. New printing technologies are just unbelievable. When you have that level of change in an industry that previously never had digital status you have a massive re-skilling issue. But, ask the school leaver today and they will not see the printing industry as fashionable, due to the perception of a sector dominated by ink, paper and noisy machines...”

Rewriting the future of work

This issue is also compounded by the fact that Australia often views VET pathways as inferior to a university degree, an outdated perception that Skills for Australia hopes to address. “There are so many cultural issues that drive the way sectors develop over time,” Caplan reflects. “For instance, in Germany, VET qualifications are viewed more highly than going to university because you get really good training while in Australia, the vocational pathway is secondary to the tertiary pathway. But when people say things like ‘we need half of the population to go to university’ it can send the wrong message and you end up with an oversupply of university graduates. What we need are high skills levels and a realisation that there are a number of modern pathways that can be followed.  Some sectors have shown that alternative route can be exploited successfully – we’ve seen this across fields such as nursing, law, accountancy and engineering to name a few. If we had really good higher level vocational pathways people would have a greater choice about their future direction. In the UK, we started getting employers together to develop vocational qualifications at a higher level and communicate this at schools and conferences. Eventually, people listened. There are lessons to be learnt about VET reform from countries that are similar to Australia who’ve gone through the process. But it takes time to change the culture.”

Ultimately, Caplan hopes that Skills for Australia will help pave the way for the country’s productivity, innovation and future growth. “Most employers can’t plan for a decade ahead but five years is a reasonable scenario,” she says. “We want the Australian economy to be excel globally and this relies on workers driving productivity through our workforce having great skills. And to have great skills you need to have the right training. If you don’t start planning now for what’s happening five years ahead, then you just won’t be ready.” 


Australia in transition

Is Australia facing the risk of complacency?

With productivity, growth and wider societal challenges facing our economy, now is the time to innovate and push the boundaries of what we are capable of as a nation, in our traditional industries and as individuals.

Our new Australia in transition series aims to create conversations around new approaches government and Australian businesses need to take to help Australia realise its productivity potential. Read more.

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