As an international company, we often find that the problems experienced by colleges in one country are, by and large, the same as those experienced in another. In Australia, for instance, there is currently much debate as to what extent the system of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) should be industry-led. We have just published an article looking at this issue on our Australian website, and because the themes it deals with are similar to those currently being discussed in the UK, we have republished it in full below.
One of the big points of debate at the recent TAFE Directors Australia Convention was around the proposals to overhaul Training Packages. Of particular interest was the discussion over whether the revamp should aim to reinforce the current industry-led approach, or whether the emphasis should be more on the broader educational needs of learners.
For example, David Pattie, Branch Manager, VET Quality Policy and Regulation with the Department of Education and Training, commented:
“If we concentrate on what’s best for learners, then the industry is likely to get what is best for it also.”
Whilst Sara Caplan, CEO of PwC’s Skills for Australia said there needed to be a way of making changes to training packages much quicker and industry-led, with skillsets as a building block to a full qualification.
The tension between skills demand and supply
The comments above suggest that there is a tension between educational and economic realities. Should Training Packages be driven by what education providers think will benefit their learners, or should they be driven by what employers want? Or to phrase the issue slightly differently, the tension is between whether the system should be driven by demand or whether it should be driven by supply. To some extent this is perhaps inevitable, but as we will argue below, this needn’t be the case.
To help us think through this, let’s just look at the overall purpose of Training Packages. According to the Department of Education and Training, they have four aims:
- To help the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system achieve a better match between skills demand and supply
- To encourage flexible and relevant workforce development and learning
- To provide for the national recognition of the vocational outcomes of learning
- To guide and support individuals in their choice of training and career
These aims, at least, do not include any tension between meeting the needs of industry and meeting the needs of learners. Point number one assumes that better alignment of the skills that are taught to the skills that are needed is at least possible. Point number two assumes that the skills system can be made more flexible in order to respond to changing workforce needs. And point number four assumes that such a system will inevitably benefit learners, as they can then be guided and helped into sustainable employment. In other words, the theory behind Training Packages suggests that if there is better alignment of skills learnt to skills needed, this will then flow out into a more flexible workforce, and more fulfilled individuals. The big issue that needs a solution is therefore this: how can this alignment be achieved?
Achieving a better match between skills demand and supply
The basic problem here is essentially no different to the problem of matching the supply of any good or service to demand. Just as the key to avoiding oversupply or undersupply in any other situation is for the supplier to be aware of actual demand, so the key to solving the mismatch between skills demand and skills supply is the same: the more education providers are aware of the actual demand for skills, the better the chances of them avoiding the oversupply of some skills, and the undersupply of others.
That may sound fairly obvious, but it doesn’t answer the question of how education providers can actually gain this knowledge of actual skills demands. There are of course various methods that can be employed, including building relationships with industry and industry groups, conducting surveys, and using government employment data. However, each of these methods are, to a greater or lesser extent, deeply flawed. Not only are they time-consuming, but they are also bound to give just a partial view of real demand.
What is most needed is a solution that allows education providers to identify employer demand both quickly and with sufficient detail. This second point is particularly critical. The temptation is always going to be to use national level or even state level data to identify industry demand, and to assume that what goes for the nation or the state goes for the city, the town or the rural area. Yet this is seldom the case, and local economies often differ massively from one another.
A similar temptation is to use data to identify demand at the broad industry level (Construction and Manufacturing, for instance), and to assume that demand for the more specific industry levels underneath these broad categories will be the same. But the fact is they won’t.
It is only with Labour Market Insight (LMI) that is truly local, and which can drill down to the more granular level of industries and occupations, that it is even possible to really get to grips with local demand. And having used the granular data to identify demand, this can then feed into planning a curriculum which really does supply the skills that industry is crying out for.
Achieving better alignment brings benefits to all
As we mentioned earlier, discussions around aligning the skills supplied by the education provider to the skills demanded by the employer are often accompanied by tension. Education providers want to work in partnership with industry, but need a holistic view of skills needs across an economy rather than a narrow view from a small section of big employers. Employers fear that by being provider-led, the system can only provide homogenous learners without the emerging skills needs they need.
Yet we would suggest that this tension only really exists because the problem hasn’t yet been solved. Education providers are called upon to supply the right skills, but because they are largely shooting in the dark in terms of knowing what are the right skills, this understandably makes them feel that they are probably doing a disservice to their learners. Meanwhile, employers become more and more frustrated at education providers, because they feel that their pleas are being ignored.
But imagine what would happen if education providers – armed with local level data that helped them get to grips with local level demand – did start to tailor a curriculum that met these needs. Wouldn’t everyone benefit? Wouldn’t education providers be able to get on with the business of training a flexible workforce for their area? Wouldn’t industry get the people and the skills they are looking for? And wouldn’t learners benefit by knowing that they were training for skills and a career that actually existed? And of course this would benefit local economies, communities and ultimately the nation as a whole.
There really needn’t be any tension between education provision and industry needs. If the skills alignment issue can be solved – and we believe local LMI is key – everyone would be a winner.
We can offer you the local insight that will help you identify the skills needs of industry in your area. To find out more, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org