How Vocational Education and Training can fuel Australia’s productivity into the future

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Those with experience in Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector will likely agree that the sector is well-placed to meet the demands of a fast-moving and ever-changing world. With the correct resourcing and funding, VET can be an agile system that rapidly upskills and reskills Australians to respond to challenges and opportunities.

I was heartened to see the Productivity Commission also recognising this recently in its interim 5-year Productivity Inquiry report, The Key to Prosperity.

The report indicates that Australia will require “academic and vocational education systems that can provide the workforce with both solid foundational skills — such as the ability to problem solve and to think critically — as well as equipping workers with the specialist (or vocational) knowledge required for specific roles.”

And I believe the VET sector is poised to deliver. Here’s why.

A competency-based system delivers outcomes

Unlike many other forms of higher education, VET requires students to prove they have the skills to do the job before they can graduate. This gives employers certainty that their new hire has the competency to succeed from the get-go. It also means students don’t leave the system without developing the skills that will ensure they are employable. 

In addition, most VET qualifications require a significant work placement component that enables students to develop the foundational workplace skills that will set them up to thrive throughout their careers. 

Skills like problem-solving and critical thinking can be nurtured in a classroom through simulations and role plays, but they are really developed and cemented in a real-world context.

These immediate and measurable outcomes are critical for a world in constant flux. Today’s education and training initiatives must deliver real-world competencies that can be put into practice immediately to ensure return on investment for individuals, employers and industry.

A long-term, sustainable solution

Australia is at a crossroads when it comes to our workforce. The combination of existing skill shortages, changing skill needs and the shift to a service-based economy are creating new challenges and opportunities. 

When it comes to navigating Australia’s productivity needs, there are many levers, such as skilled migration, which can provide a short-term fix. But the long-term, sustainable solution is an investment in education at all levels.

There is a fantastic opportunity right now for Australia’s education providers to collaborate on holistic outcomes, such as VET to university pathways and micro-credentialling. Such collaborations could see Australia truly embrace lifelong learning, helping individuals and entire industries respond to emerging challenges and opportunities into the future. 

Of course, any such collaboration would require a healthy, well-funded higher education system across the board. The current siloed systems, policies and funding arrangements are likely to be roadblocks, but I’d love to see how this could be reviewed and resolved as part of a plan to increase Australia’s skill base. 

An agile system that can deliver

During COVID-19, VET proved itself capable of delivering rapid upskilling and reskilling initiatives to meet changing needs.

At the height of the pandemic, many VET providers, VERTO included, were called upon by employers and industry to help at-risk workers transition to new industries. And I am proud to say we delivered. Among the projects VERTO undertook, we reskilled airline pilots for other localised transport roles, ensuring they retained an income while the travel industry shut down.

We also adapted to online learning faster than we ever thought possible so many students could continue learning remotely. And while face-to-face classes and work placements remain critical to delivering competency-based outcomes, many VET providers have embraced a blended approach that gives students the best of both worlds.

A better solution for many HSC graduates

VET is an ideal option for HSC graduates who aren’t interested in a career in the traditional professions. It may also be a better option for those who achieve an ATAR of less than 70, according to Productivity Commission Chair, Michael Brennan.

In April 2022, Mr Brennan gave a speech to VET research organisation AVETRA. In it, he shared some tentative insights from research into ‘additional students’, those who went to university because of the demand-driven system. 73% of these students had an ATAR below 70.

“We tried to compare these students with other students who had similar characteristics but who went through the VET system. That analysis suggested – very tentatively – that those in the VET system were more likely to end up in full-time work and had higher pay a few years after graduating.”

Imagine what the right education options could mean for young people with so much potential.

Looking to the future

At the end of the day, a strong, healthy education system is a must for Australia’s future. In the wake of the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit, it will be interesting to see what changes are made or reforms introduced. I hope we can realise the full potential of our VET system. It will be a win for individuals, employers, industries and the Australian economy as a whole.