Not all employers are the same

Geof Hawke argues that our approach to involving employers in education and training hasn’t made enough allowance for the wide variations among employers.
Once again attention is being drawn to the importance of establishing a means by which employers can be encouraged to invest in the skills of their employees. Governments, unions and employer groups are all renewing strategies to increase the active participation of individual employers in utilising education and training as a central strategy in renewing and upgrading the skills of the workforce.
This notion has been a central feature of concerns in Australia and overseas for many years. It is often held that, by contrast to the international experience, this has been an area in which Australia has been less successful. I’m not convinced that the international experience has been as good as often portrayed. However, our key concern needs to be the Australian situation and, in this regard, I argue that a central difficulty has been the overly simplistic approaches we’ve adopted.
It is a truism to point out the wide variety of circumstances under which employers operate in Australia, and yet this has rarely been fully understood by most policymaking. Indeed at least three critical dimensions need to be considered. First, the labour markets within which employers need to operate vary greatly by geographic area. Second, there are very greatly different cultures at work in various industry sectors, especially in respect of their history and culture of training (and even attitudes towards learning). Finally, and critically, there is the question of size.
The geographic spread in labour market conditions is often matched by corresponding differences in the quality and competitiveness of the education and training market across those areas. Many commentators have identified the problem of thin markets in many areas of this country. These are circumstances in which the number of competing providers (of education services or of employment opportunities) is very low and so real competition is not possible. Clearly, in these cases, standard market-based approaches can’t work (and clearly haven’t). We need to understand these circumstances and build models that work specifically in these situations.
The question of differing cultures is similarly critical. Some sectors have long – and often fiercely-defended – cultures of training. Others have only in very recent times had any links to formal systems of education and training. Among these, some have embraced the opportunities on offer, others still resist. To achieve change in these different areas will need to start from those differences and tailor strategies to meet their needs. This will need to be a sophisticated approach that recognises that there are variations within industry sectors that are often greater than those between industries.
Policymakers have often recognised the importance of differences in organisational size, especially in their acknowledgment that policy needs to account for the needs of smaller employers. However, that recognition has not translated clearly into policy practice. We need a strategy that differentiates between larger and smaller employers. Experience clearly indicates that larger employers are capable of providing their own in-house resources towards these ends. Smaller employers (as a rule) don’t.
With larger employers, the challenge we now face is predominantly one of re-engaging them in the provision of in-house training for their staff. It has been too easy in recent years for them to simply shift this responsibility onto the public purse. We need to develop strategies (including possibly financial incentives) to re-establish (or expand) their own in-house education and training provision. Initially this might also involve the provision of subsidised consultancy services to assist them identify how best to do this. A possible strategy (successful overseas) could involve the secondment of TAFE and other teachers to provide this assistance (including, possibly, recently retired staff). To assist in that process, we may need to repackage for contemporary use and wide dissemination the significant body of research and other information produced through NCVER and others on the cost-benefits of investing in workforce training.
As well, it would be desirable to develop specific options within the training and assessment training package that make it more relevant and useful to medium and large employers. This might result in recreating a distinction between workplace trainers and institution-based teachers (which might not be a bad thing).
For smaller employers, different approaches are required. An important step could be to establish an accessible and appropriately priced consultancy service to assist small/medium employers to establish education and training regimes for their staff using appropriate providers. Again, financial and other incentives to participate could be considered. It would also be vital to free up administrative requirements within TAFE institutes that prevent them providing appropriate education and training services within workplaces.
Another strategy could involve examining the capacity of the group training network to extend its services to cover the gamut of occupations in which small employers could share training responsibilities for individual learners.
These are simply some initial thoughts, and I’m sure there are many other, possibly better, ideas. Whatever we do, though, the response needs to be built upon real knowledge of employer circumstances and not on simple, administratively attractive responses.
Geof Hawke is a senior research fellow at the UTS Centre for Research in Learning and Change. He retires at the end of October.

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