I came to last week’s jobs and skills summit with cautious optimism. Peaks of this type are rare. They are also high level with an abundance of expectations. On Friday, my expectations were exceeded and caution was removed from my optimism.
Skills presented everywhere throughout the two days. Each speaker not only mentioned the urgency of the current challenges, but recognized the need for real and lasting reform. Many lamented the seemingly intractable nature of the skills system’s problems, expressing frustration at the lack of progress for too many years. However, the conversation at the top has changed.
The Prime Minister’s opening salvo that revealed the Commonwealth and States had agreed to embark on a training blitz immediately upped the dial as an additional $1 billion for free TAFE training places in 2023 went up been engaged.
An intention to establish Jobs and Skills Australia as a priority was also included. This independent agency with tripartite governance will create a new conversation about skills and our training system. Jobs and Skills Australia, among others, will be tasked with the important task of strengthening our workforce planning, enabling the development of a National Skills Plan.
For me, the most important difference Jobs and Skills Australia can make is that of strategic national leadership. Driving a bold reform agenda that prepares for and meets immediate, medium, and long-term skills needs requires equally bold leadership. Jobs and Skills Australia can offer this, but the opportunity should not be wasted on tweaking and mixing. The new agency must articulate a clear purpose and a clear roadmap for how we can meet current and emerging skills needs that lead to a highly skilled, well-paid and productive economy.
Reform is always a contested process. The summit laid the groundwork for dialogue to begin with all parties around the table. We also need vision. If we really want to focus our education and training sector on our future needs, we need a cohesive and connected third sector – a sector that also values vocational and higher education in a fluid, seamless and dynamic way. . Full implementation of the Peter Noonan Australian Qualifications Framework exam is an essential first step.
We also need a tertiary system that consistently delivers high-quality, reliable education and training worthy of our investment. It means upping our funding and regulatory game to ensure that every dollar invested – public or private – benefits everyone.
Entry-level training, like our apprenticeship system, needs to be reinvigorated, but we also need to focus on the skills of people in the workforce to ensure their skills remain contemporary. This will involve developing a lifelong learning framework that creates skills options for existing workers and mature job seekers.
Particular emphasis is placed on the development of a range of ‘industry-approved’ micro-certificates allowing for shorter, more precise and targeted upgrading and requalification. Careers are no longer linear and predictable, and every worker – young and old – must be flexible, adaptable and able to rethink how best to use and develop their skills and abilities.