While the number of manufacturing courses available to Australian-based students has steadily declined over the past six years, Steven Impey takes an in-depth look at how America is influencing the future of Australia’s education system.
When deciding what future generations of manufacturers should be learning in school, at TAFE, or even inside the halls of some of Australia’s leading universities, it used to be much more black and white.
The consensus once upon a time was that apprentices of the trade underwent practical training on factory floors while the white-collar academics focused on writing papers that would define the future of the industry.
With modern-day twists – where technological evolutions are influencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) – a new wave of visionaries are being sought; an integrated generation ready to ride a change of course and invent a new destination.
“There’s a drive in Australia for more collaboration between research institutions and industries along two fronts,” Mark Goodsell, head of The Australian Industry (Ai) Group’s NSW branch, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“One is along the lines of technology and product development – blue-sky-to-commercial ideas – while the other is around knowledge-transfer between companies and researchers for purposes of training, education and skill development.
Benefits of integrated learning
“By blending engineering and academics, we are seeing more people who can move seamlessly between industries.
“You are now starting to see more universities become more integrated with companies as we have seen in Europe, where there are already industry-based universities working on projects directly.
“We have a long way to go in Australia while there are still head winds of culture and traditions to push through. While the academics are very useful collaborators, you do get a sense that they are doing it for different reasons.”
Some universities voiced their concerns about a government decision in April to streamline the number of occupations which foreign nationals can apply for temporary employment.
As the Turnbull Government tightens its borders in an attempt to put “Australian workers first” – much like President Donald Trump’s policy to “buy American, hire American” – it is an educational system created under the Obama Administration which is being trialled this side of the Pacific Ocean.
As of last year, around 100 students across Australia were selected to participate in an American-born model which the Federal Government has invested $5.1 million to pilot.
First tested in Brooklyn, New York, P-Tech (also known as Pathways in Technology Early College High School) took shape in 2011 and has since expanded internationally.
Its purpose is to establish long- term partnerships between industry, schools and tertiary education providers and does so by enabling businesses to play an active role in the learning and career development of their future workforce.
Nick Wyman, CEO of the Skilling Australia Foundation, was appointed by the Federal Government to adapt and rollout the same P-Tech programme, which was originally set up in the U.S. by the International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation.
“Back in 2013, while undertaking a Churchill Fellowship, I went looking for fresh approaches to engaging young people in skilled careers,” Wyman explained during an interview with Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“I found many in the UK, Germany, and in parts of the United States. Among the most promising I encountered was P-Tech.”
This year, five new P-Tech schools commenced in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, with more to come in Queensland and Tasmania next year.
So far, more than 25 employers across Australia have committed to the P-Tech partnership programme.
“I was shocked at how many young people [in Australia] front up for an interview with no idea about what it is they want to do or what opportunities are available to them,” Wyman continued.
“I have to say that parents are also cautious about sending their children near anything that sounds like ‘manufacturing’ – which doesn’t have anything to do with the position the car industry is in, but rather a genuine concern around the media.
“I think manufacturers have since realised that the government isn’t going to solve their skills shortages and that they are going to have to engage at a deeper level.”
By turning more towards high- tech production – the likes seen in Germany and Switzerland – Wyman also believes manufacturers in Australia could also see more opportunities to commercialise new ideas.
“There’s no question young people have opportunities to learn, whether that is working for Price Waterhouse Cooper in augmented reality or artificial intelligence at IBM,” he continued. “It’s about pulling these kids in and really capturing their imagination.”
Manufacturing student numbers in decline
In Australia, only Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) can deliver nationally recognised courses and accredited Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) qualifications.
Since 2011, the number of RTOs that provide at least one manufacturing-related vocational education and training (VET) course has taken a hit with 697 registered this year compared to 770 six years ago.
The number of students enrolled in manufacturing courses is also sliding, according to government statistics, with 123,700 signed up in 2015 versus 139,800 in 2014.
These figures include some unaccredited VET courses that
were government-funded and some non-vocational (e.g. university) level accredited training delivered by dual- sector providers.
Manufacturing-related study encompasses anything from food processing to furnishing; aero-skills to minerals. Data for enrollment in 2016 will be released later this year.
The government does continue to subsidise students studying in the industry, albeit these numbers have also fallen dramatically since a spike in 2012 and 2013, which saw more than 100,000 students financed each year.
As of 2015, the number dropped to 81,200 – although that is more than 5,000 better off than 10 years earlier.
“Apprenticeships are the flagship of VET and are a critical part of our plan to build a highly-skilled and qualified workforce,” said Karen Andrews, assistant minister for Vocational Education and Skills.
“They provide on-the-job learning and have exceptional employment rates for apprentices who complete training [while] advanced manufacturing offers unique opportunities for Australia in both domestic and international markets.”
As part of the P-Tech programme, every state will be incorporated with seven schools now up and running from a target of 14 P-Tech schools.
Its goal is to provide educators with a range of examples of how to work in partnership with industry, and engage and inspire students to pursue STEM education and employment pathways.
In the US, colleges also have an input in the sustainability of national industry amid efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and are doing so by working mouth to jowl with industry leaders alongside government policy.
Among the keynote speakers at last month’s 2xEP Energy Productivity Summit held at the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney,
Denise Swink, CEO for the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC), gave an insight into the steps being taking in the States.
Since it’s inception in 2012, US$600 million (A$796.2 million) in federal government funding went towards SMLC’s multi-state network, which collaborates two-thirds of America’s largest manufacturing companies and eight of the nation’s 10 highest-ranked research and engineering universities.
“Our institutes cannot make a difference unless their academics are all part of the process; for technology development, yes, but critically for workforce development,” Swink explained during an interview with Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“You can’t have one university developing smart manufacturing technology and another university doing something completely different.
“Of our members, 70 are universities. They are the ones who develop the curriculum and are the academics our companies are looking to, to make sure students are covering the skills we want our folks to have.”
According to an Ai Group survey, there is “some dissatisfaction” with the skills of VET gradates within the industry, including problem solving and self-management, as well as basic literacy and numeracy.
The data collated shows that, while more than half of employers want to maintain their current training expenditure, 38 per cent intend to increase it.
In light of problem areas, the verdict is that stronger links are needed between schools, VET sector and higher education to tackle a skills shortage.
Professor Bronwyn Fox leads the Manufacturing Futures Research Institute at the Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, where a new Bachelor of Engineering Practice (Honours) will be offered next year.
In March, she attended the G20’s Digitising Manufacturing Conference in Berlin on behalf of Professor Aleksandar Subic, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor – who also sits on the Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce – to discuss the opportunities and challenges in shaping the future of digital manufacturing.
“For me, it was a phenomenal experience to see how they are working in countries like Germany and Austria,” Prof Fox told Manufacturers’ Monthly. “I haven’t seen software on the factory floor used to that extent before.
“It is a huge skill we are going to need in the future. We are aware of what they are doing in Europe and what we need to do to meet our needs in Australia.”
To integrate the industry into global supply chains, Prof Fox also explained how the needs of the employer are changing and how graduates require the skills to make a difference as manufacturing becomes more digitalised.
“We are going to have to further the relationship between mechanical and mechatronic engineering and create an integrated factory floor,” she continued, “where our students work within the industry itself on an integrated level.”