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Vocational education in Australia

Industry News, Management | May 1, 2013 | By:

Australia’s STA (formerly ACASPA) has received a sizeable grant for workforce development.

Australia’s high dollar has pushed local labor costs to relatively high levels internationally, which has affected manufacturing competitiveness and led to industry pressure to modify employment laws, including minimum wage rates. Many disagree, if not always for the same reasons. “Australian labor is expensive. Is that a bad thing? No, not at all,” conservative Shadow Treasurer Joseph Hockey was recently quoted as saying. “We can compete with higher wages provided our output per worker is globally competitive. What we need to do is to ensure that our workers have the skills and knowledge that our industry needs. Education, training and re-training is a key step to unlock labor productivity gains.”

However, under the country’s constitution, education and training are state responsibilities, even though largely funded by federal grants, which often have conditions attached as to how the funds are allocated. The machinations of bureaucracy are made even more bewildering by federal-state disagreement over priorities for resource allocation.

The Specialised Textiles Association, formerly known as the Australian Canvas & Synthetic Products Association (ACASPA), based in St. Kilda, Victoria, Australia, applied for and was recently allocated a $422,000 grant from the National Workforce Development Fund, part of the federal government’s “Building the Future Workforce” and “Skills Connect” programs. The grant will begin to address existing gaps in the training and licensing of installers of blinds, awnings and shade structures, and ultimately help to achieve the goal of ensuring that all installers are appropriately qualified and licensed.

Training options

Because of Australia’s small population, most industries in the country are not large by global standards. The textile conversion sector is no exception, with an industry turnover of $1.4 billion and roughly 2,700 enterprises, which are not concentrated in a particular region, but scattered across the nation. Demand for industry-specific education and training is similarly dispersed, and it is difficult to find a critical mass in any particular region. The obvious answer is remote learning programs, but states are understandably reluctant to fund beneficiaries who are not local residents.

Accordingly, delivery of textile-specific education and training is frustrated not just by the small size of the industry sector, but by state jurisdiction and the whims of federal budgeting. Nonetheless, there are some excellent institutions, such as the Sydney Institute of Technology and other similar colleges of Technical and Further Education (TAFE). Courses offered are based on common modules, and judicious selection allows tailoring a training program to the specific needs of a particular business, such as marine trim, awning and blind manufacture, general canvas goods production, tents and similar businesses. Some modules are common to other industries, and a student training in shade sail installation, for example, may share a concrete foundation module with those students seeking accreditation in construction.

Certificates are issued based on the achievement of a measured competency, not simply attendance and completion of a course. An experienced and accomplished machinist, for example, may enroll in a course module, but be assessed in the workplace itself. He or she, if able to demonstrate the required skills, would be deemed to have satisfactorily completed the module, without necessarily having to attend the course at all. This flexibility allows the work experience of an individual to be formally recognized, and integrated into further training if required. The opportunity for further education is not limited to hands-on textile conversion, but also extends to general business training in marketing, sales, occupational health and training, bookkeeping and other areas.

Employers are provided with incentives to encourage their workers to undertake further education and training—through generous tax deductibility of costs and sometimes outright government grants, particularly in the case of disadvantaged workers. The students themselves bear some proportion of the costs, but are provided with government-funded student loans, with the repayment commensurate with their level of earnings.

Help wanted

Despite the obvious benefits, the take-up by both employers and employees has not been as comprehensive as might have been expected. A significant proportion of enrollments comprise school leavers, seeking to attain basic skills, and only a few mature workers have sought accreditation. Part of the issue is that attainment of formal qualifications is not a pre-condition of employment, nor does it necessarily result in higher wages relative to unqualified individuals. In this context, even with subsidy, the costs incurred may be perceived to be significantly more than the benefits gained.

Coupled with this has been the significant decline in the local fabrication industry as a result of the global financial crisis. Simply put, the entire textile manufacturing chain in Australia, from fiber to finished product, has shrunk by 40 percent over the last five years, due to substitution by imports of finished textile products. These have grown by 73.5 percent over the same period, from 32.1 percent to 54.7 percent of the overall market. None of this boosts the confidence of current industry participants or potential entrants.

Skills, competition and competence

Still, taking all of this into consideration, there will always be a local textile conversion industry, whose prosperity will depend on competitiveness. The Australian dollar has and will continue to fluctuate in value, and cannot be expected to be sustained indefinitely at its current rate. At the micro-economic level, competiveness will be driven by productivity gains, which are inextricably linked to vocational education.

The take-up of education and training opportunities will also be boosted by the looming prospect of licensing. Australian consumer protection legislation has been significantly strengthened over the last few years. Consumers now have a legally guaranteed right that goods are fit for purpose and meet statutory minimum warranty requirements—which include installation. Coupled with concern over potential safety risks, this has led regulators to pursue the option of formal licensing of installers. Large fabric structures are already subject to such provision under the building code, but the current exemptions for smaller installations routinely undertaken by fabricators, such as shade sails and retractable awnings, are under review. Licensing is inevitably based on formal accreditation, which is, in turn, logically dependent on the existing process of training certification.

Grabbing this bull by the horns, the Specialised Textiles Association, an associate member of IFAI, will use the $422,000 federal government grant to facilitate the maintenance of trade skills in textile conversion businesses, and to develop a scheme for accreditation and licensing in the state of New South Wales, as a pilot for other states of the Commonwealth. The training and certification will be coordinated and supported by STA, but actually delivered by TAFE (including the Sydney Institute) to 126 trainees, at an average cost of $5,000 each. A third of this cost will be borne by the trainees themselves, or their employers (or a combination of both).

As a result, in one fell swoop, the industry, through its association, has gained control of the whole licensing process, avoiding a possible regulatory overkill. Another significant benefit is a re-appraisal of the need to develop further skills by protagonists in the industry, which we hope will lead to greater pride in those skills—and respect for them. After all, education is a lifelong journey; as Winston Churchill once commented, “My education was interrupted only by my schooling.”

Chris Nolan is managing director of Nolan.UDA in Alexandria, NSW, Australia, and a former member of the IFAI board of directors.

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