Preparing the workforce for the skills of the future

During a day of robust discussion, delegates, speakers, and panellists came to grips with the skills crisis confronting the Australian manufacturing industry, and what can be done to overcome this. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.

Setting out the question that would go on to frame the skills discussion at the National Manufacturing Summit, Gayle Tierney, Victorian Minister for Training and Skills, asked, “How do we ensure Australia’s economy continues to compete on the world stage, how
do we meet employer demand for highly skilled workers, and how do we identify what skills we need, and how do we ensure Australians have the skills for the future?”

It took a day of panels, questions, and side-line conversations to come to an answer. Potential solutions included closer collaboration between industry and training sectors, restructuring qualification frameworks, and allowing more space for diverse thinking.

Establishing the context for where the sector currently stands, Justine Evesson, managing partner at Employment Research Australia, determined that there is a national consensus that the current system for vocational education and training is broken.

With TAFE “more or less invisible in national policy”, according to Evesson, the extraction of public money from the TAFE system to the private sector has led to low skill training delivery, without TAFE as a national anchor institution, setting the standard for the rest of the VET sector.

In addition, Evesson highlighted that TAFE’s deep and rigid bureaucracies, combined with a lack of funding, has limited its ability to engage with industry when developing courses and curricula.

More broadly, Evesson outlined that Australia is not alone in confronting a skills crisis with a dearth of 21st century skills. These skills include problem solving, collaboration, team work and creativity. While these skills are undoubtedly needed, a focus on  these foundational skills cannot come at the expense of expertise in a particular area, noted Evesson, pithily summarising that “there’s not much use in collaborating if you have nothing to contribute”.

Matching these comments, the newly appointed Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry, Science, and Small and Family Business, Brendan O’Connor, highlighted
that from the federal Opposition’s perspective, change is required.

“TAFE and the VET system does need reform,” acknowledged O’Connor.

O’Connor characterised the system as one that is in decline, while noting that the skills delivered by TAFE, those that equip us to keep learning throughout our lifetime, are more in need than ever. O’Connor noted that it is a shared responsibility for industry and government to ensure that the workforce is prepared for the future.

“Governments and industry will need to consult and collaborate intensively to secure our place in advanced manufacturing,” said O’Connor, “before the divide between those countries investing in skills become too great and we get left behind.”

At the other end of the tertiary educational spectrum was Michelle Gee, professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Lawrence Wackett Centre at RMIT University. Having previously occupied the role of digital manufacturing lead at Boeing Aerostructure Australia, Gee could see across the divide between academia and industry, but directly spoke to university partners, telling universities to “focus on the customer needs and let the customer drive your work”.

With universities incentivised to produce intellectual property (IP) by the demand to publish in academic journals, yet without any need to commercialise the product, this hoarding of IP has limited the ability of industry to adopt university expertise as an alternative to in house research and development (R&D). For this to occur, universities and industry need to be interconnected at all stages of the process, according to Gee.

Putting this into practice fell to industry, and as Chris Brugeaud, chief executive officer
of SSS Manufacturing, a structural steel fabricator, highlighted, the technical capabilities of Industry 4.0 are available now, but a lack of a skilled workforce has limited the implementation of these technologies.

However, the structure of Australian industry is also placing a strain on the ability of Australian manufacturing to support skills development. As Adrian Boden, executive director of the South East Melbourne Manufacturing Alliance (SEMMA), pointed out, Australia is unique among the development world in the composition of the industrial sector, with 90 per cent of companies employing less than 30 people.

With all these factors in mind, the array of speakers broached a number of responses to the skills crisis.

Partnerships was a topic discussed by almost all in attendance, with it being key to Tierney’s vision for the sector.

“We support developing partnerships between training providers and industry to make sure that the Victorian system has relevant, accessible, training,” said Tierney.

Pointing to the state government’s $14 million training framework as one example of how this could work, another was the success of free TAFE with 25,000 students enrolled as of June 2019, six months since the beginning of the program.

At a smaller level, Megan Lilly, head of workforce development at Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), said there was room to expand micro-qualifications – short courses for employees to upskill while in employment. Noting that this should not come at the expense of foundational training and qualifications, Lilly noted that from Ai Group’s research, the issue in Australia is of a skills gap between what is present and what is needed, rather than an overall skills shortage.

With Lilly noting that 50 per cent of all jobs in the future will shift in their composition by 50 per cent, workplaces will have to become mini classrooms, with the participation of industry, so that upskilling can occur.

As automation occurs across the workforce, there is potential for new technologies to expand the workforce, rather than shrink the number of employees. Brugeaud, who also leads industrial automation business, IR4, highlighted that 100 per cent of a business will never be automated and that rather, the high levels of automation in 60 per cent of the business will allow for efficiencies to hire more people.

As roles change in manufacturing and industrial businesses, new skills and competencies come from the new people that fill these roles. As Sandra Taylor, manufacturing manager at Twinings, pointed out, without a need to conduct heavy lifting in the production process more people, whether they be younger, older or of a different gender, can become involved in manufacturing. With this expanded set of employees, different ways of thinking can emerge, as Kirsty Bateman, director of engineering capability at BAE Systems Australia noted.

“Diverse thinking comes from diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences,” said Bateman, and demonstrated how this diversity will lead to new ways of working.

However, with even representatives of industry noting how hard it is to predict what will occur in the future with the pace of change so rapid, developing a highly responsive training package may continue to be elusive, and a combination of all these suggestions will be required.