Australia must develop a new work-based learning model to help workers navigate the modern economy.
And a revamped TAFE system should serve as its keystone.
That’s the key message from several economists and education experts, who spoke to The New Daily days after Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese gave a speech in Perth on jobs and the future of work.
In his first major announcement since Labor’s bruising election loss, Mr Albanese told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia that Labor would set up an independent government adviser called Jobs and Skills Australia if it won the next election.
He said the organisation would work with business and unions to ensure Australia’s training system met the needs of industry and adequately prepared Australians for the future of work.
According to a recent Australian Industry Group survey, three-quarters of businesses cannot find the skilled workers they need.
By reviewing the adequacy of Australia’s training system and undertaking workforce and skills analysis, Jobs and Skills Australia would help address that skills mismatch, Mr Albanese said.
Callam Pickering, APAC economist at global jobs site Indeed, said Mr Albanese’s plans sounded like a pretty good idea “on first glance”.
He told The New Daily Australia’s skills mismatch was worse than in the UK and the US, and had contributed to Australia’s comparatively high unemployment rate.
“So I think there is scope for us to do a little bit more in trying to match what employers want with the skills that job-seekers have,” Mr Pickering said.
“And if we can manage to narrow that gap even a little bit, it ultimately leads to better economic outcomes for Australia.”
Mr Pickering highlighted healthcare and tech as two industries suffering from particularly large skills gaps.
He said Australia had previously relied on skilled migration to bridge these gaps, as the rapid rate of technological change made it difficult for Australia’s education and training system to adapt accordingly.
“The skills that are in high demand today might be very different from the skills that are in high demand two years from now,” he said.
“And even with a more concerted effort from organisations such as what Anthony Albanese is talking about … it would still be very difficult for the education system to adapt quick enough to address those skills shortages.”
Mr Pickering said employers would need to step up their work-based training programs to help overcome that challenge.
And Victoria University’s Peter Noonan agreed.
A professor of tertiary education policy at the university’s Mitchell Institute, Mr Noonan told The New Daily that Australia needed a new, work-based learning agreement between government, the education system and employers.
“Employers are certainly reporting that people don’t have the skills they are seeking … but the reasons for that are complex and my own view is you can’t just blame the education sector for that,” Professor Noonan said.
“A lot of the skills that employers want are work-specific, job-related skills. So we need a big increase in work-based learning, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and internships.”
Mr Noonan said employers shouldn’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting, though.
Competitive pressures, along with high levels of casualisation and staff turnover, meant employers would need help from education providers and governments, too.
“Essentially there’s got to be a systemic approach to building work-based learning for young people and also for re-skilling the current workforce,” he said.
“TAFE would have to be the centre of that.
“And the good thing about TAFE is that its student base is overwhelmingly part-time – people in work and young people using apprenticeships and things like that, so it’s always been very work- and employment-facing.”
Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, also said Australia’s labour market relied on TAFE.
“The decision to defund what were once world-class, stable, reliable public colleges – the TAFEs – and use public money to fund fly-by-night private operators, who predictably got caught in all kinds of scams and rorts – that whole approach has laid waste to our vocational training infrastructure,” Dr Stanford told The New Daily.
“So the TAFEs absolutely have to be rebuilt and quickly … because right now nobody has confidence, and that inhibits students from taking the time and money to learn a trade, and it makes employers reluctant to trust the value of the certificate.”