15 October, 2018

Defending TAFE – perspectives from manufacturing

By Ian Curry

The future we want is dependent on us successfully defending public education and particularly, defending public Vocational Education & Training - TAFE.

More than anyone, TAFE teachers know the transformational power of a good vocational education, and I can say with certainty that our members appreciate that as well as most of them are the products of your good work over decades.

But we also know the enormous damage that’s being done to the system by relentless ideological attacks on public education and the prioritization of private profits over public good that are the hallmark of government policy.

I’d like to concentrate on these issues through the prism of Manufacturing & Engineering and in the interests of our members and the industries that employ them.

The AMWU is a union of skilled workers.

The skills of our members directly affect their standard of living through skill related classification and pay arrangements embedded in Awards and in our Collective Agreements.

For us, skills are an industrial currency. For employers in our industries, skills are a significant risk factor, the difference between staying in business or not.

The major opportunities on the horizon for manufacturing and engineering workers and employers revolve around continuous naval shipbuilding, defence engineering, infrastructure, niche manufacturing, engineering services, rail, renewable energy, so-called Industry 4.0 and Advanced Manufacturing, all of which require workers with sophisticated skills in the near future.

And as it stands, we are concerned that there won’t be enough skilled workers to go around.

We appear to have learned nothing from the disaster that was the mining boom, when rapacious mining companies used their financial strength to secure the workers they wanted, often at the expense of more mainstream industries.

Skills shortages were a significant drag on the economy and uncertainty about skills hampered investment and commitment to the employment of Australians.

It was a period that taught employers that they could abandon local employment and the government would subsidise their bottom lines by importing labour at an unprecedented rate.

The resource sector consumed around 5% of Australia’s engineering trade workforce but only trained 2%.

Decent employers became risk averse about training workers in the fear that they would be gobbled up by poachers.

The rogue employers learnt the art of exploiting temporary skilled workers

As a result, the system is demonstrably weaker now and the risks associated with skills shortages are more pronounced than ever.

It is now somehow the role of the taxpayer and Peter Dutton to supply employers with the skilled labour that the economy needs.

A frightening statistic I heard just yesterday was that Australia produces around 6,000 engineering graduates per year, but imports around 12,000 engineers on temporary worker visas of one kind or another.

We need to interfere in that business model.

We, along with other unions, are in discussions with the key players in the defence engineering and shipbuilding space about strategies to assist with both the design and the delivery of training to produce the skilled workers they will need.

Having campaigned so hard to secure the work on these projects, it would be a criminal shame if we were unable to deliver the skilled workforce required to exploit the opportunities.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that the lack of certainty regarding the supply of skills to the economy is playing on the minds of many of those companies who are wondering where the welders will come from to weld up frigate and submarine hulls, where the technicians will come from to install and commission sophisticated navigation and integrated weapons systems and the myriad other sophisticated workers that are required to capitalize on these emerging economic opportunities.

The word I am hearing repeated most often these days is ‘certainty’, but not in a good way.

  • There is a lack of certainty in what the VET system is producing.
  • The system is trying to serve too many masters.
  • Industry, student and community confidence is declining.
  • Evidence is emerging that we are returning to an economy constrained by skills shortages and a lack of employment and skills mobility.
  • The number of people that complete their experiences with VET continues to stagnate.
  • Confidence in trade apprenticeships and technical cadetships is diminishing.
  • Increasing calls for flexibility and specialisation designed to meet the narrow interests of individual employers and training providers, rather than the broader interests of the ‘industry’, are blurring the scope of the traditional trade and technical vocations.
  • The result is a race to the bottom on cost and quality that is forcing high quality public and NFP industry providers to join the race.
  • Students and employers have little chance of developing into the informed and demanding consumers our VET system desperately needs while the current levels of disconnect and incoherence prevail.

The poor quality of training and assessment is such that the decline in industry and community confidence has led to a bizarre regulatory response that is process, rather than outcomes, oriented and heavily weighted towards auditing training and assessment tools rather than the capability of the graduates against the standards specified in Training Packages.

The result is a race to the bottom on cost and quality that is forcing high quality public and NFP industry providers to join the race. TAFE has become a casualty of that race and the poor leadership and management thrust upon it by governments, compounded by the funding environment that it operates in.

If we are to rebuild community confidence in the system, we need absolute certainty about what problem we are trying to solve and what role we expect of the VET system and TAFE as the public provider.

But rebuilding confidence has to involve dealing with the weaknesses of the system.

The VET system suffers from the lack of a clear and simply stated purpose.

Despite the fact 83.7% of people engage with the VET system ‘for employment related reasons’ only 16.7% are employed at a higher skill level after training.[1] The system is failing to produce workers with the higher level skills the economy needs.

The central role of industry in determining the shape and nature of jobs and work no longer translates into determining the occupational standards upon which VET teaching should be based.

Training Packages have become confused, and there are too many misguided interventions into their design and application including persistent tampering with the design model for administrative or vague ‘quality’ reasons that do not serve the interests of students, industry and the community.

The minimum qualification (Certificate IV) for VET teaching has become the norm despite it being hopelessly inadequate when the professionalism in education design and learning that is required demands at least an Associate Degree or Degree.

We fund ‘deposits of teaching’ in a transactional approach rather than competency units designed to be integrated into broader capability which results in a whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

We do not fund the things we know that the community expects:

  • High quality preparatory programs
  • High quality pre-apprenticeship courses
  • Fit-for-purpose foundation skills support programs
  • High quality Adult & Community Education programs
  • Second chance education for those who need it
  • Learning experiences that produce graduates that are the well-educated, socially capable and resilient workers we need as a developed country.

The direct connection between the occupation and the vocational qualification is being lost and training has become a tradeable commodity.

Something has to change.

We have embarked on a mission to establish AMWU endorsed occupational profiles for each of the key occupations in our industries. It is our intention to link them directly to our industrial agreements, and ultimately to the Award.

We want to link them also to the training system and support them with endorsed qualification profiles, endorsed progression profiles and endorsed learning and assessment plans to be delivered by our preferred and endorsed provider, TAFE.

But we will need your help with that.

We want to work with you on developing the learning and assessment models, including foundation training, learning programs designed to support learners confronting challenges, curriculum and project-centred formative assessment tools that would be required to give life to restoring vocational learning to its rightful place.

With your indulgence, I’d like to finish with a little reminiscence.

About 17 years ago I gave a speech on globalization to the AEU State Council in South Australia. The theme was ‘economy v society’ and focused on the damage being done by globalization and the fixation the world was developing on measuring everything in economic terms.

I was attempting to set out the contrast between living in a society and living in what was rapidly becoming an economy. I’d like to finish this contribution today with the same words I used in that contribution 17 years ago:

“… Schools, and by definition, teachers are placed in a unique position to shape the society of the future.

It is their responsibility to give our youth tools with which to participate in the transformation of society, not merely to churn out factory fodder, or more likely call centre fodder.

The interests of manufacturing workers in my view are tied in no small way to the relative independence of our education system and the values that underpin it.

Those values are rapidly becoming driven by economic not societal values and we must join together to grasp back our rights to live in a society – not an economy.”

Ian Curry is the National Coordinator for Skills, Training & Apprenticeship Policy at the AMWU



[1] Productivity Commission Report on Government Services page 5.21

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