How COVID-19 has highlighted the need for a stronger VET sector

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

As we navigate the COVID-19 crisis, we've seen many Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualified workers amongst those in high demand, from healthcare to essential retail. As we move into recovery, VET will need to play an even greater role, helping millions of displaced workers upskill or reskill to find new employment opportunities.

Yet there's no denying that the economic downturn will impact Australia's Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) and many may find themselves struggling in an environment that has already been challenging. Apprenticeship commencements are continuing to fall; a 33% decline was reported in February and that was before COVID-19 restrictions were in full swing.

This is a frightening statistic. A strong VET sector will be critical to both reduce skills shortages in key industries and help Australians attain the qualifications needed to thrive in a post-COVID employment market.

The sector has its challenges

While Australia's VET sector is seen as one of the strongest in the world, it is certainly not without its challenges. In 2019, the Joyce Review handed down its report into the VET sector, and its recommendations ring even truer today as we enter economic recovery.

Work has already started on many of these recommendations, and while it's critical to respond to the unfolding situation, for me, it's not about fast-tracking solutions. It's about getting it right so that we can all reap the benefits of a strong sector in the long term.

A flexible, agile system is a must

For many years, Australia's VET sector has been weighed down by long turnaround times to make changes to qualifications and course structures. Much of this has been attributed to quality assurance and maintaining national standards, but it also has to be about taking action to keep qualifications current in a changing world.

It can take years to identify and enact changes to the current structure and, often, by the time the changes are implemented, the courses are already out of date. In a post-COVID world, responding to changing demands will be even more important to help us strengthen the economy.

A simpler funding model will help

I've talked before about the issues with the VET funding model, it can be confusing and isn't on par with the tertiary sector. 9 out of 10 jobs of the future are tipped to require a VET qualification, so getting this right now will not only serve us during recovery, but well into the future.

In the short term, it would be great to see the importance of the VET sector recognised with stimulus packages to help the sector provide services to increasing numbers of displaced workers.

In any period of high unemployment, such as the one we are entering now, it is some of the most disadvantaged groups who can find it even harder to secure a job. Job seekers with disability, mature-aged job seekers, long term unemployed, Indigenous Australians and those based in our regions may find even more barriers in front of them.

Programs such as Career Transition Assistance, and New Careers for Aboriginal People are designed to help job seekers in at risk groups, and they are all provided by Australian RTOs, like VERTO. At the end of the day, we need a strong industry so that we can continue helping the individuals and communities who need it the most.

Shifting attitudes and changing misconceptions

The Joyce review recommends "better careers information" and "clearer secondary school pathways", and this is something I couldn’t agree with more. Misconceptions abound when it comes to VET and apprenticeships, from certain jobs being for "the boys" to VET being the poor cousin to university.

Many people also think that VET and apprenticeships are all about traditional trades, but the reality is that there are over 500 apprenticeship occupations, in areas as diverse as arts and culture, food and wine, and engineering.  

VERTO recently launched the free, online CareerGate tool to help school leavers and those looking to transition careers to find the apprenticeship that matches their skills and passions. It would be great to see tools like these become part of the career guidance discussion in the near future, helping secondary school students to explore all their options.

And shifting attitudes must extend to industry as well. Being competency-based, most VET courses involve a work placement component, where students must learn and be able to demonstrate the skills required to do the job. Employers can see this as a time-consuming exercise without realising the benefits, in both contributing to their industry's future and potentially finding the right employee. We have many good news stories that support this, like that of Shannon Denmead, a young mum who proved such an asset during her aged care work placement that Opal Bathurst offered her a job.

Our VET sector is at a crossroads, and the challenges of COVID-19 may present an opportunity to make real changes to the sector. Australia can be a world-leader in vocational education and training, creating an agile workforce who can respond to a rapidly changing world, if we get it right today.