Everyone wants the vocational education and training system to be simpler and more responsive to the market’s needs; can Liza Harvey and Jim Walker deliver? Click through to see more on our Apprentices and Training feature.
Last December, Liza Harvey was sworn in as Western Australia’s training and workforce development minister – the fourth minister to hold the portfolio in as many years.
He brought extensive experience to the role, as chairman of mining contractor Macmahon Holdings and former managing director of WesTrac, which traditionally has been one of the state’s biggest trainers.
They also have at their disposal a thought-provoking report completed last year by former University of Western Australia academic Margaret Seares, on reform of the vocational education and training sector (VET).
“The sector is probably a little bit change-weary; that said, there are a number of issues that still need to be addressed,” Ms Harvey told Business News.
“It is an unnecessarily convoluted sector, and there is a genuine desire to make the system more flexible.
“We need to streamline training packages and allow them to be modified more easily so training providers can respond to industry changes in a more timely way … to be more nimble.”
Mr Walker is on the same page.
“We’re wanting to look at how we can simplify the whole system,” he said.
This includes creating simpler pathways from school to vocational training, and on to a job or further study at university.
Mr Walker also wants to remove duplication and overlap across apprenticeships and training courses, favouring simpler base courses.
“What are the basics, how do we combine them, then add new modules as needed?” Mr Walker said.
“I’ve always said: train for the need, not for the sake of it.”
Having met recently with the Master Builders Association, he gave the example of bricklaying.
All brickies need to be able to build a straight wall, but not all of them require training to build archways.
“If you don’t use, you will lose it,” he said.
Big and complex
A few key statistics illustrate the size and complexity of the VET sector.
WA has 2,530 registered training organisations, including 300 that are contracted by the government to deliver more than 600 heavily subsidised priority courses.
That’s on top of the state training providers.
All of those training providers are competing for a shrinking pool of students.
WA had 40,100 people in training in December 2014, according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.
That’s down 12.1 per cent from the all-time peak in June 2012.
The fall has been much more extreme in other states.
Nationally, the number of people in training has fallen by 38.8 per cent from its peak, also in June 2012.
There was a similar pattern for commencements during 2014.
In WA, there was a 6.4 per cent drop last year, compared with a 26 per cent drop in NSW and Victoria.
Finding an explanation for WA’s better performance is not easy; one factor is that the number of people training in the building and construction sector in WA rose last year to a record high.
In evaluating the VET sector’s performance, the number of people in training is just one factor.
Ensuring the sector produces graduates with the right qualifications at the right time is another, arguably even bigger, challenge.
Ms Harvey accepts that modern workplaces demand more flexibility.
“The system is currently viewed as quite unwieldy; it needs to be more flexible to suit particular industries,” she said.
“Where we need to be vigilant is ensuring that qualifications students achieve at school are relevant to industry, with competencies they need to continue on to further education or into employment.”
However, Ms Harvey expressed some frustration at the inability of businesspeople to clearly explain their problems and preferred solutions.
“I’d like to see more buy-in from industry,” she said.
“Trying to find the right people who can explain that is harder than you think.”
Professor Seares’ report mapped out in detail the kind of reforms that could make the VET sector more flexible and responsive.
She was commissioned by then minister Terry Redman in 2013 to conduct the independent review.
Her review was handed down in 2014, by which time Health Minister Kim Hames had taken on the training portfolio.
Dr Hames provided a formal response to the review late last year; he accepted most of the recommendations, but soon after handed over to Ms Harvey.
Master Builders Association WA director Michael McLean said the high turnover of training ministers had been an issue.
“I’m not critical of any one of them but that turnover hasn’t helped,” Mr McLean told Business News.
“We hope there can be more stability in that area.”
Professor Seares’ report proposed major changes to how the sector is governed, including more independence and assured funding for the State Training Board.
The report said the Department of Training and Workforce Development should shift its focus away from management of issues, which can be devolved to the 11 state training providers, towards a more strategic focus on policy, planning and facilitation.
Further to that, her report said state training providers’ governing councils should be given complete responsibility for the performance of their managing directors.
More innovation and commercial flexibility for the state training providers was another theme.
Another recommendation was that the government and industry training councils set their top few priorities each year.
That contrasts with the annual ‘Skilling WA’ report, which identifies “25 areas of strategic focus and 87 priority actions” state government agencies and industry stakeholders aim to deliver.
Speaking to Business News, Professor Seares believes the government needs to provide clarity around the design of the VET system and articulate an overall strategy for the sector.
“We’ve got this very large system but there isn’t a clear strategy to guide its development,” she said.
Professor Seares said the strategy should address the respective role of the state training providers and the hundreds of private training companies.
She believes the state training providers, particularly the regional ones, don’t have a sense of what government expects from them.
Professor Seares said it should be easier for students to move between Tafe colleges and universities.
“Everyone knows the problem,” she said.
“It can be a very involved process, when it should be fluent and much easier.”
She believes the government should convene a forum of vice-chancellors and managing directors to develop a statewide pathways and articulation framework.
Professor Seares also wants the VET sector’s profile lifted, with more promotion of its value.
Ms Harvey praised the report, saying it gave a good snapshot of the sector.
She has embraced some of the recommendations, including regular meetings with the chairs of the state training providers.
Speaking to Business News, Ms Harvey also highlighted positives in the sector, saying state training providers are lifting their game.
“They do have a lot of flexibility; some are moving ahead already,” she said.
Ms Harvey encouraged more specialisation, but acknowledged this presented a big challenge for regional training providers, which have to meet a wide range of needs.
Mr Walker was also positive about the Seares report.
“We’re working through that, it was a good report,” he said.
Asked whether he would be advocating more action, including more independence for the State Training Board, he said those decisions were up to the government.
“My role is to provide information to the minister on what is needed.”
In support of that objective, the State Training Board is close to completing research into future skills requirements.
It has worked with Deloitte to model four different economic growth scenarios, with projections to the year 2030.
Mr Walker said the report, to be finalised in coming weeks, had identified aged care and healthcare as big growth areas.
Ms Harvey expressed cautious support for risk-based regulation, which differentiates experienced operators with a good track record from new entrants to the sector.
“There is a high regulatory burden on providers that is not necessarily linked to risk,” she said.
This approach accords with federal government moves announced last year by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane.
The Australian Skills Quality Authority has been given the ability to crack down on serious breaches and to ensure high-quality training providers have the autonomy to spend more time skilling the workers of the future.
“ASQA should be a regulator, not a bookkeeper,” Mr Macfarlane said.
The federal push for reform has been handed to Assistant Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham.
His focus has shifted recently to what he calls “tough new standards” to crack down on dodgy operators, after some training providers and their agents were found to have problems.
The regulatory light touch for compliant training providers has come in several ways.
The registration period for compliant organisations has been extended from five years to seven years, for instance.
‘Highly compliant’ organisations are able to add and remove courses from their ‘scope of registration’ without application.
The automatic requirement to submit to a financial viability risk assessment for re-registration has been removed.
Other initiatives the federal government is rolling out include providing financial support to almost 80,000 employers this year to help with the costs of employing an apprentice through the Australian Apprenticeship Incentives Program.
The federal government is assisting more than 24,000 apprentices through Trade Support Loans of up to $20,000, with the greatest support available in the early years when apprenticeship wages are lowest.
Most significantly, it is providing up to $200 million a year for the new Australian Apprenticeship Support Network, which kicks off at the start of July.
Senator Birmingham said the aim of the new network was to improve apprenticeship and traineeship completion rates.
To back that up, payments to the network providers will be based on outcomes.
The four contracted providers in WA are AMA Services, The BUSY Group, MEGT (Australia), and Apprenticeship Support Australia, which was established by the chambers of commerce in NSW, Victoria, SA and WA.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief executive Deidre Willmott believes apprentice support services will be given a significant boost under the new national model.
The four network providers in WA will be a one-stop shop for anyone seeking advice about pathways to vocational employment with a focus on supporting apprentices and trainees from their start date all the way through to completion.
“Apprentices and trainees will receive more support, with career advice, job matching and mentoring, while employers will receive advice and assistance regarding their obligations and entitlements and how to navigate the system,” Ms Willmott said.
In WA, CCI will deliver the services on behalf of Apprenticeship Support Australia.
“CCI has been using the mentoring and support approach to serving apprentices and trainees and we have seen successful results,” Ms Willmott said.
National reforms needed to remain focused on reducing red tape for employers, improving the quality of training outcomes and providing appropriate incentives to encourage more employers to invest in nationally accredited training, she said.
“CCI supports a harmonised national VET system as this will reduce confusion that exists currently around qualification recognition between states,” Ms Willmott told Business News.
“A harmonised VET system will enable national recognition of all agreed qualification and facilitate labour market mobility.”
The challenge for reformers is that harmonised occupational standards have been on the agenda for many years, but progress has been very limited.
Another perennial goal Ms Harvey is pursuing with gusto is to encourage more women into trade apprenticeships.
She was pleased the Barnett government had introduced a $3,000 scholarship for women studying the STEM subjects, in areas like IT and electrical engineering.
Her feedback from women who had begun apprenticeships was that they gained good support in the workplace; the problem lay with parents, teachers and peers who had tried to coax them into traditional female occupations.