Australia’s Jobs and Skills Summit is a most welcome event. A broadly based and supported national dialogue leading to concerted action on how paid work is best made available, engaged with and the skills for it developed is urgently needed.

The Summit’s seven topics focus the dialogue on key goals associated with employment and employability. Despite six of these topics being premised on skill formation, it is not explicitly referenced in any of those topics. The delegates might well be reminded that skills beget the jobs. That is, central to realising those goals is the development of skilfulness including their adaptative use required for contemporary work and now, to assist greater national self-reliance. So, more than deliberating on employment alone, the summit needs to focus on skill formation, its further development and adaptability in responding to occupational changes, specific workplace requirements, and supporting efforts to make Australia more self-reliant in its provisions of goods and services. All of this will likely require some reforming the governance of vocational education, and how it is organised and enacted across our communities. 

” … the summit needs to focus on skill formation, its further development and adaptability in responding to occupational changes, specific workplace requirements, and supporting efforts to make Australia more self-reliant in its provisions of goods and services.”

Responding to challenges

The evidence suggests that all kinds and classifications of Australian workers engage in responding to new challenges and problem-solving on a regular basis, typically weekly, and for many daily. This means that more than securing occupationally specific skills, the development of skilfulness needs underpinning by the ability to adapt that skilfulness to emerging challenges and new requirements. Also, more than exercising that adaptability in their day-to-day work, Australian workers need to be involved more in initiating and enacting workplace innovations. That is also changing work practice and processes to respond to those challenges. This is how key modern nations have built and advanced their economic base when confronted with similar national challenges to those we are now confronting.

So, the Summit needs to engage in dialogues about what should be the purposes of vocational education and how they shape its provisions. Central here is assisting young and not so young Australians identify to what occupations they are suited, developing their capacities to effectively practice their occupations and sustaining their employability through provisions of continuing education and training. Of necessity, this requires a provision that goes beyond initial training for occupations, but to assist graduates have adaptive occupational competence, and provide educative experiences to develop, and refine those capacities in ways that make them both applicable and adaptive to change and be able to contribute to workplace change.


Collaborations are central

As with countries that have mature vocational education systems, these goals cannot be achieved by vocational education institutions and teachers alone. Instead, collaborations with enterprises become central for providing effective provisions of both initial formation of occupational skills and their ongoing development within the workforce. However, collaboration rather than a mandate is needed to be the basis for these working relations. Also, after three decades of an industry led vocational education system which, is repeatedly claimed not to be meeting the needs of industry change is required in its governance. This leadership approach was originally premised on the claim that educators did not understand the business of industry, which was always spurious for a teaching workforce largely drawn from industry. As quipped earlier and has been proven over those decade perhaps industry does not understand the business of vocational education. Meeting the demands of contemporary work, with its need for adaptability cannot be left to those who do not understand these requirements, there alone how educational experiences in both vocational education institutions and workplaces can develop those capacities.

As in Australia’s past, the current crises suggests that some earlier practices might need to be revisited, including adult apprenticeships, comprehensive prevocational programs, local negotiations of vocational educational goals and provisions, a move away from competency-based outcomes and concerted efforts to raise the standing and status of the occupations that vocational education serves and the system itself. So, rather than referring to it as a Jobs and Skills summit, perhaps the order should be reversed. If Australians have access to effective and adaptive skill formation and advancement the goals to which the Summit is directed would be met. As has been the case for far too long, the great risk is that the vocational education system, its purposes and processes will be once more overlooked and taken for granted as being merely about the development of skills for young Australians unsuited to unable to secure university entry. 


Dr Stephen Billett

Dr Stephen Billett is Professor of Adult and Vocational Education in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia and a National Teaching Fellow and Australian Research Council Future Fellow. 

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