How lifelong learning can help people adapt to workplace change

| January 8, 2020

Benedikte Jensen, First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Employment and Skills, delivered a keynote address at GAP’s 10th Annual Economic Summit which outlined a range of federal measures to support worker retraining. The following is an edited summary of her presentation.

The Australian Government’s reforms of vocational education and training aim to promote lifelong learning in a variety of ways.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in September 2019 saw the Prime Minister and Premiers of all States and Territories agree the need for a training sector that is responsive to the needs of private industry and the public sector, ensures employers have ready access to a highly skilled and adaptable workforce, is flexible in providing skills at all points in an individual’s career, and recognises the importance of a viable and robust system of both public and private providers.

The Government spends $3 billion a year on the vocational education and training (VET) system and recently announced an additional skills package worth $525 million.

The Joyce Review stressed the need to meet immediate skills shortages and ensure that training keeps pace with a changing economy, and so the new skills package will create a national approach to defining skills priorities and engage industry more closely in designing and delivering new provision. It will also establish a National Skills Commission to provide leadership on workforce needs and VET funding.

The Australian Government is also founding a National Careers Institute and will appoint a National Careers Ambassador to work with industry, schools, and tertiary providers to better connect skills and training options. Two skills organisation pilots in aged care and digital skills will look at how to align training package development with the needs of industry more closely and in a more agile manner. These and other developments attest to the Government’s commitment to the VET sector.

Reskilling car workers

Recently published research on worker transitions from the auto industry to other jobs is also instructive. The closure of the Ford, Holden and Toyota car plants and their impact on the supply industry in 2016-17 was one of the biggest structural adjustments in Australia’s manufacturing sector in living memory. In 2014, the Australian Government estimated that 27,500 jobs would be lost with the transition of car manufacturing, including 6,600 jobs from the car plants themselves and 20,900 from 215 suppliers.

However, only 14,000 jobs had actually been lost by May 2019, less than half the losses expected.

Research released before the GAP Summit details the employment outcomes of former car-workers three, six and 12 months after retrenchment. Eighty-five per cent remain in the jobs market, and 82% are employed in new jobs. Many of these manufacturing workers were older and had worked for the same employer most of their lives, and so these positive results attest to the success of the transition package.

Training support, covering everything from university degrees and VET to funding for licenses and tools, helped workers find a range of new avenues, a fact illustrated by the story of “Barry”, who moved from working in the auto supply chain to healthcare, a growing employment sector.

He built on qualifications from his previous job to find a new position, showing that training and experience from one job can transfer to new sectors. However, workers need to build a portfolio of specialised, digital, soft and foundation skills to equip them for future changes in the economy.

As well as training support, career counselling and job-hunting tips, including assistance with resume writing, interview skills and digital literacy, were made available to auto workers.

Workers with technical and soft skills often undervalue these skills and struggle to relate them to prospective employers. Helping candidates identify and promote transferable skills was critical. Communication, resilience, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills are valued by employers alongside the ability to work to strict deadlines.

Some of the technical skills auto workers had were in high demand by prospective employers. These included skills in lean manufacturing, continuous improvement, quality control and attention to detail.

A number of workers mentioned how much they valued the individual career counselling services that encouraged them to consider different career paths and explore the transferability of their skills.

Some auto workers capitalised on their soft skills and moved into different industries, while others relied on their proven technical skills to find jobs in similar industries.

Early notification of workplace closure also gives workers time to adjust and reskill. Toyota, Holden and Ford announced their proposed closures in 2013-14, giving time for federal and state governments, manufacturing peak bodies and unions to collaborate with the companies on worker support.

While the car companies transferred some staff to new roles and locations, supply chain firms were able to diversify, and only a quarter of them closed, compared to initial fears of a loss of three quarters.

Government assistance

These lessons have shaped recent government programmes and industry best practice to support worker transitions. The Stronger Transitions package released by the Australian Government in July 2018, or example, offers pre- and post-retrenchment support for workers in five regions experiencing rapid change: Adelaide, Mandurah, North West Tasmania, Melbourne North/West and North Queensland.

Local Employment Facilitators reach out to companies experiencing significant retrenchments and explain the benefits of acting early, and co-funded support is offered to affected workers by transition specialists, with redundant workers receiving immediate access to government employment services and relocation assistance. The programme reflects the importance of early and close partnership with companies.

The Career Transition Assistance programme is available to all job seekers on income support, aged 45 or above. It was rolled out nationally in July 2018 as part of the Government’s More Choices for Longer Life budget package. This programme addresses the barriers which mature aged workers face in returning to the workforce.

It offers a personalised skill assessment as well as training advice, and incorporates feedback from former car workers. Finally, a new digital tool on the Government’s Job Outlook website infers people’s skills from previous jobs and helps them see how they could be applied in other jobs.

The auto industry experience shows that individuals, industry and government must all play their role to produce successful outcomes. Workers must be proactive in identifying current skills and be open to embarking on new training, while employers must offer early warning of retrenchment plans and aim to better understand the skills and potential in their workforce, to identify options for redeployment or reskilling of workers.

A holistic approach

Education and training providers have a role in developing and delivering accessible quality products that meet the requirements of adult learners and businesses, while government should set up adequate regulatory, safety and legislative environments for businesses and education and training providers.

Government also has a role in providing information on the changing labour market and tools to support individuals, businesses and education providers to plan for the skills needed for the future.

A key role for government is to listen and respond to everyday Australians and apply the lessons learned from past and current experience through flexible policy and program responses.

This is an edited summary of a speech delivered by Benedikte Jensen at GAP’s 10th Annual Economic Summit at NSW Parliament House in Sydney on 20th September 2019 and is published by permission.