July 27, 2020

TAFE is the answer

Half the new jobs over the next five years will require VET qualifications, according to a report by the Department of Jobs and Small Business yet still TAFE is being starved of funding. Investment has dropped to its lowest level since 2008, when the Australian Government began its series of vocational education funding reforms.

Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President called this underinvestment ‘a shameful decade of neglect’ pointing out the recent announcements by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison to strip funding from TAFE.

Last year the government cut $325.8 million in funding from TAFE budgets, equivalent to almost 11 per cent of total federal funding to the sector. The TAFE sector was also deprived of access to the $4 billion Education Investment Fund, money which was intended to be invested in desperately-needed infrastructure improvements in the TAFE and higher education sector.

Earlier this year it was revealed that the Federal Coalition failed to spend nearly $1 billion budgeted for a series of TAFE apprenticeship, skills and training initiatives.

Ms Haythorpe used these figures to hold the government directly accountable for the current national skills shortage. Last year the figures for apprentices taking up training dipped as low as 140,000 fewer than when the government was first elected.

For years the Federal Coalition has systemically starved TAFE of funding, yet now we learn that there is almost a billion dollars in unspent TAFE and training funding.

The lack of appreciation for the vital role that TAFE graduates play in keeping the Australian economy operating, particularly in tough economic times, is apparent. The government is not only preventing people from accessing quality training, but preventing them from accessing the labour market and well paid jobs.

The Department of Jobs and Small Businesses Job Outlook Data states that the four growth sectors of the future will be health (particularly ageing), construction, education and IT – all sectors that would benefit from investment in a strong TAFE sector.

TAFE is going to be more important to the employment prospects of Australian’s than ever before. Yet there is no indication that policy-makers are connecting the dots and preparing TAFEs to meet the future needs of these sectors.

People without Jobs and Jobs without people

Australia is already short of workers in many fast growing occupations. The Australian Industry Group’s Workforce Development Needs Survey revealed that 75 per cent of employers are experiencing skills shortages and finding it difficult to fill vacancies.

This is playing out most visibly in the construction industry. Australia is in the midst of a population boom and governments are investing heavily in infrastructure to keep up. The lack of home-grown talent means that employers are having to look overseas for people in a bid to keep the projects on track.

As a result, the government is issuing more temporary skilled worker visas for welders, carpenters and electricians than ever before, with the amount growing from 7,200 to 9,200 nationally from 2018 to 2019.

The skills crisis is not just confined to urban infrastructure projects, it will be felt keenly in the rural and regional areas most affected by the bushfires that need massive reconstruction. Homes, schools, businesses need to be rebuilt and having TAFEs delivering accredited vocational education courses in those devastated areas would drive economic recovery and provide a much needed boost to the communities

It would also mean that we can compete internationally and take advantage of rapidly expanding export markets too.

With national youth unemployment trending considerably higher than a decade ago at 12 per cent – nearly three times the higher than the rate for Australians aged over 25 - there is no shortage of people to undertake the work. This figure increases to 14 per cent in Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia where funding cuts to TAFE have hit especially hard.

Opportunities in Aged Care

The Brotherhood of St Laurence is running a national campaign ‘My Chance, Our Future’ to draw attention to this youth unemployment crisis. While it warns that the equation between getting a qualification and a job is not simple as not all jobs are suitable for everyone, it points to a strong Vocational Education system as a necessity. Their campaign snapshot spotlights that demand for carers, particularly for people who are aged or live with disability, is growing faster than the figures for enrolment in courses. Indeed it is projected that Australia will need to triple the carer workforce by 2050.

Karen Noble of Canberra Institute of Technology warns that this demand should not be seen as a market to be exploited.“There’s no doubt that with our ageing population we need young people to consider and get trained up for careers in aged care, but it is vital that there is proper planning for these jobs and training is not rushed. At TAFE it takes a minimum of 4 – 6 months to complete the entry level qualification. This includes knowledge and skills, learning in simulation and well-structured and supervised industry placement. Anything less results in substandard education and low quality workers, who themselves become vulnerable employees.”

Karen says she is astonished to still be asked: “Can I do this Certificate all on line? Can it be faster and why do I have to do so much?” Other providers, and reduced funding, have set the bar low and conditioned the market to expect this training to be fast, cheap and requiring little effort. Yet we only have to look at the evidence presented in the Royal Commission into Aged Care to see what happens when training is rushed.

Fourth Industrial Revolution

Rapid technological change in the first 20 years of this century continues to disrupt the way we work and is making TAFE more important to our national development and the employment prospects of Australians than ever before. Policy makers need to be thinking now about the repercussions of new technologies and the transition for workers. To maintain that vocational education should be built on units of competency that have been derived from current jobs, while it is widely reported that 50% of people today will be doing jobs in the future that haven’t been created yet is illogical. There is an urgent need to build capabilities so young people can adapt to changing circumstances and build and easily transfer their skills throughout their careers.

Australia’s narrow competency-based qualifications need to be broadened to teach twenty-first century capabilities including critical thinking, creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship. If we want young people to tackle the big issues facing our society and come up with solutions these skills will be vital.

Industry’s strangle hold over national qualifications development needs to be reduced with a return to teachers having greater input into the curriculum. This change would allow for a much more agile response to local needs, rather than the ‘just in time courses’ that are being driven by industry demands today. In addition, there must be a properly resourced commitment to ensuring that all young people have strong core literacy, numeracy and digital skills as a basis for ongoing participation in work and community.

TAFE vital to a Just Transition

As Australia transitions to a clean energy future, workers will need to re-skill and re-train as jobs become redundant. It’s impossible to simply redeploy coal miners as solar panel installers or wind turbine engineers. A workforce development plan with a strong TAFE at the heart will be essential for avoiding skills shortages that may create barriers to investments in a low carbon economy.It’s urgent that we start thinking about this now. We need to make sure that people are not left behind.

Unless governments address the crisis in the TAFE sector as a matter of urgency, the consequences for Australians – and the society and economy – will be dire.

The vocational education sector needs a complete structural overhaul to restore TAFE to its centre.Tinkering at the edges of the current market based system and allowing profit margins to drive which courses are delivered will fail to equip Australians with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in our labour market and solve the complex challenges of the 21st century.

Marketing spin over a proper plan

The Assistant Minister for Vocation Education, Training and Apprenticeships, Steve Irons MP outlined his vision for TAFEs in a speech to the TAFE Directors Convention in Brisbane late last year. He proclaimed ‘the $525 million package announced in this year’s budget is a new beginning for vocational education and training in this country’.

Yet there was not one single mention of public TAFE in the 2019-20 budget and this money which funds the “Delivering Skills for today and tomorrow” package based on the recommendations of the Joyce review is not a new investment. It is made up almost entirely of repurposed funds from the existing Skilling Australians Fund which was not spent due to Victoria and Queensland refusing to sign up. It does not come close to replacing the $3 billion that has been cut from VET since 2013.

Mr Iron’s announcement to establish ten training hubs across Australia to tackle youth unemployment in key regions also rang hollow when TAFEs around the country are being closed down.

He then called on TAFE Directors to ‘do things like meet with the National Careers Ambassador and perhaps provide input to the National Skills Commission’ putting the onus on TAFE staff to be proactive rather than actively seeking out expertise.

In response, Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President, has challenged the Federal government to prioritise TAFE in the 202-21 budget due in May “This Budget must provide significant re-investment in TAFE and scrap endless industry and employer focused committees, concocted expert panels and dubious celebrity ambassador appointments that emerged from last year’s budget as the Government’s response to the Joyce report.

Public Money for Public Good

It stands to reason that public money – taxpayer’s money – should be used for the public good, but that also means that it should not be given to private operators to undermine that investment.

The Tasmanian Government’s decision to keep Drysdale School of Hospitality as a valuable part of TasTAFE is a credit to its high student and employer satisfaction rates. Its new Tourism and Hospitality Student Scholarships will provide more Tasmanians with the expertise to take advantage of the jobs being created across the state by its booming tourism industry.

However, while TasTAFE struggles for funding the state government is handing millions of dollars to the hospitality industry to conduct feasibility studies into forming a privately operated training organisation that would directly compete with Drysdale, a deliberate attempt to undermine TasTAFE that can only be described as privatisation by stealth.

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2020