Laissez-faire approach to workforce planning

03/09/2009 - 00:00

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Experience has demonstrated that funnelling students into courses designed to fill a skills gap just doesn’t seem to work.

Laissez-faire approach to workforce planning

REG Howard-Smith says it wasn't long before the conversation turned to workforce planning at a recent meeting of resource industry representatives.

"The view around the table was 'this doesn't work, this doesn't work. We've been through it countless times and at the end of the day the market is what determines where people basically go'," recalls the chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia.

Mr Howard-Smith isn't dismantling all of the chamber's workplace modelling systems just yet, as he says forecasting can be an instructive tool for educators and industry.

But he does describe himself as a convert to the "laissez-faire" approach when it comes to deciding whether or not to funnel students into a particular occupation to plug a workplace gap.

The French phrase, which literally means "let do" or "leave it to be", also summed up the general view at the WA Business News roundtable when it came to workforce planning.

The debate regularly arises during times of skills shortage, or when emerging technologies create new job opportunities.

University of WA vice-chancellor Alan Robson said there was a lesson to be learned from policies built on the dot.com bubble.

"Workforce planning, in my observation, has never worked," he said.

"We had a great shortage of computer scientists, and the government put in place incentives to enrol students in computer science, and that occurred just before the dot.com crash."

Almost overnight, highly skilled computer scientist graduates couldn't find jobs, and universities were left with unpopular courses they were required to fill.

"I'm a deregulator in the education market. I'd let the market decide. No controls on enrolment, no controls on fields of study, money follows the students and each institution works out exactly where it goes from that," Professor Robson said.

During the recent boom, WA was on the lookout for geologists, but the major universities were unable to attract more students into that field. Nationally, the number of students enrolling in science courses, such as geology, physics and chemistry, has been on the decline - and these are the skills industry is seeking.

Association of Consulting Engineers Australia national president Paul Reed said the challenge was to give students a passion for the sciences early on.

"Mechanisms to generate interest in young people early in their educational years in science and engineering ... can just spark some interest early in the piece," Mr Reed, who is regional director for Parsons Brinkerhoff, said.

The issue of workplace planning is one where industry and educators will, at times, clash. On the one hand, industry may require a highly specialised skill set for a particular project or sector. On the other hand, educators are aware that the need might dry up, and/or might limit a graduate's employability by not having a broader skill set.

The challenge is not lost on the state's training providers.

Central Tafe's Jamie Mackaway said the provider received specific skill requests from individual enterprises.

"What we are getting and seeing is increased demand for specialised training," said Mr Mackaway, who is executive director of engineering, technology and business.

"The challenge for us is responding to what is relatively highly specialised but relatively low level demand. We're quite good at putting out large numbers in certain trades or professional areas but it is that demand from industry for very specific training that is a challenge."

So what is the answer?

Murdoch University deputy vice-chancellor, academic, Jan Thomas, said there was a balance.

"On the one hand we need to provide an education that's very well rounded and grounded in the discipline but also provides the transferable skills that are needed," she told the forum.

Notwithstanding the different expectations and requirements placed on universities and vocational training providers, there was general agreement at the roundtable that students need a more rounded education.

And this view didn't just come from academia.

Perth-based Georgiou Group has a 400-strong workforce, plus contracted employees, largely consisting of construction staff.

Chief executive John Georgiou supports a more generalist approach to education, leaving employers and the students themselves to sort out what specific work they are suited to when they enter the workforce.

"My own view of the universe is to give more of a rounded education as opposed to something very specific," Mr Georgiou said.

"One of the things that we do is that we actually grab them when they are in their second or third or fourth year and we get them vacation employment, and we get them to do part-time work as well. At least it gives us the ability to see what their strengths and weaknesses are."

So instead of having government entice universities to skill graduates in a specific area to plug a gap, those at the forum were more inclined to support the production of more generalist graduates who could adapt accordingly.

Supply and demand then takes over.

Professor Robson said employer expectations have changed over the years, and the idea that students must be job-ready on the first day of work needs to be questioned.

"When I joined the workforce I wasn't expected to be job ready. I think there's been an absolute change in expectation," he said.

Instead, he believes apprenticeships and induction periods should be used for getting new recruits up to speed.

In keeping with that philosophy, UWA is moving away from offering professional degrees at an undergraduate level, and instead providing opportunities to specialise at a post graduate level.

"I think life-long learning is becoming more and more important. It is this challenge between having people who are useful and having them useful for a longer period than the immediate job when they graduate," Professor Robson said.

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