Career advice and information, along with clever marketing are critical
Vocational education and training, and in particular the concept of apprenticeships, is often poorly perceived, considered ‘old–fashioned’ and an alternative for individuals who are not equipped for higher education. There is a significant opportunity and challenge for the whole of the VET sector — governments, industry, employers, unions, providers and peak bodies — to work together to raise the profile of VET and the reputation of vocational careers and pathways.
In terms of attraction, accurate and accessible career advice and clever marketing were seen as critical elements.
There was a call to apply some innovative thinking to determine how to more effectively reach the key influencers, parents, career and classroom teachers (who are seen as significant agents of change) and peers. It was suggested to develop new messages, drawing from other effective marketing such as:
those used by the higher education sector
good practice examples such as Future Print used in the printing industry and the New South Wales pre-apprenticeships in construction.
The VET sector can learn a great deal from marketing approaches used in the higher education sector in terms of student and parental engagement, supporting student aspirations and promoting access to training for under-represented learners. Engaging with young people and their parents early (such as while they are still in primary school) was identified as an important step in promoting awareness of VET options.
In addition, the sector under-utilises the positive messages that can be created from part-time work many young people undertake while at school. We need to identify and acknowledge the significant skills built through work in areas such as retail and hospitality by building messages that these skills are respected and valued.
Strategies for delivering information and marketing need to consider the ‘impenetrable plethora’ of information that currently exists, and create a single source of information with simplified nationally consistent messages about apprenticeships which has been tested with employers and apprentices. The use of social media in particular to extend reach cannot be under-estimated.
There was a strong view that Australia is lacking a national approach to career advice and to building career management skills and that as part of a national approach, careers education should commence in primary school as research shows this is when career aspirations are formed. In this respect, classroom teachers and school career advisors were recognised as significant ‘influencers’ on the development of young peoples’ attitudes toward apprenticeships.
Within a national approach, systems of accountability and incentives need to be applied to schools to lift performance in career advice which is currently ad hoc and fragmented, and largely falls to individual school principals to find and allocate a budget. It was proposed that career development be included as a measurable item on ‘My School’ so parents and students can see which schools excel in the provision of career advice and development.
It was suggested that the discussions to formulate the new National Partnership Agreement for VET could be the vehicle for achieving leadership and commitment around a national approach to career advice.
It was noted that the Australian Government has committed to developing a National Career Education Strategy and that the ideas from this forum could be used to shape the strategy (Liberal Party 2016).
A key role for pre-apprenticeship programs and work placements as part of the system
The use of pre-apprenticeship and preparatory programs were seen as a key strategy for attracting apprentices and employers — benefits identified included engaging employers early in the process of work-based training, providing a ‘taster’ of the industry and workplaces to young people, and building work-readiness skills.
A number of strategies were suggested for creating meaningful work experience and work placements, including:
better preparing school students for work experience through exposure to a combination of industry specific and employability skills before they enter the workplace
using third parties such as registered training organisations (RTOs) to design and run simulations before work placements and to provide information about career pathways in the industry
providing a senior apprentice in the workplace as a ‘work buddy’ — the importance of role models
using a sample training plan for students to work through with an RTO or an industry association as the facilitator
implementing a strategy for connecting employers and schools at the local level, potentially coordinated and supported by industry associations, similar to the model in the United Kingdom which could provide the missing link between school and work.
It was also discussed that more analysis is needed to clearly identify the range, purpose, impact and value of pre-apprenticeships and to take a broad view of what success looks like, as it can extend beyond work outcomes. It was suggested that the availability of the unique student identifier and total VET activity will together enable better tracking and matching to the apprenticeship database, providing a better understanding of pathways and whether those who do a pre-apprenticeship program are more likely to commence and complete an apprenticeship.
Attracting mature age apprentices
The issue of whether the apprenticeship model is suitable to attract mid-career and mature age entrants was also discussed. Participants suggested that strategies to attract different groups need to be customised and informed by market analysis which identifies people’s motivations to change careers, but that wage rates will often act as a barrier for mature age entrants. Focusing on existing workers in a firm was indicated as a potential source of new apprentices.
There was a strong sense of the need to increase our understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and then apply the learnings throughout the life cycle of an apprenticeship. A significant emphasis was placed on appropriately matching and preparing apprentices and employers up front, as outlined in Essay 3 (see appendix 2) regarding the model applied by Hutchison Builders. There is a view that this will pay off in higher completion rates. The importance of the employer looking at, and talking to, the apprentice as a future employee, who can build a career in the enterprise, was also seen as very important to a sustainable relationship.
Other important learnings include:
Understanding the key factors that both the employer and apprentice contribute to completions and non-completions, identifying those which can be effectively influenced and putting effort into strategies to address them. Participants referred to a Western Australian survey of employers and apprenticeship non-completers about the reasons for the non-completion. The critical points identified included the need to identify suitability and the fit of both employer and apprentice, the importance of induction for both parties, and the availability of peer mentoring (both technical and pastoral).
Identifying relationships where there is a high risk of breakdown, for example by examining the factors at play in employers with high rates of apprentice ‘churn’ and ensuring that third party intermediaries have systems in place for ‘early intervention’ when issues are emerging. This is in addition to ensuring strong mentoring and in-company support exists for apprentices.
Looking at models that have been successful and assessing their applicability to the apprenticeship context. The National Workforce Development Fund had high completion rates (ACIL Allen, 2014) and although this focused on a different cohort (existing workers), the success generated by greater upfront effort to identify and match needs, and closely monitor RTOs could be translated to the apprenticeship model. In a similar vein, South Australia has the highest completion rates in the nation for traditional trade apprentices and anecdotal evidence suggests this is related at least in part to the upfront screening of employers so they understand their role and the expectations of them.
Trialling and evaluating different approaches to create a meaningful workplace training experience through a more ‘organic’ implementation of training plans — documents which evolve based on conversations between the employer, apprentice and training provider — and ‘holistic’ training that combines business, trade and life skills.
Considering a program to mentor and train workplace supervisors to over time build skills in working with apprentices and RTOs to integrate on- and off-the-job training. This was considered particularly important given that research shows (for example, Bednarz 2014) that employment-related factors contribute more to non-completions than other factors such as dissatisfaction with the training.
Examining the impact on completion rates of having access to an advocacy/student representative voice such as the Queensland Training Ombudsman, the South Australian Training Advocate and the Victorian Education Commissioner.
What about small and medium sized enterprises?
Participants debated whether the holistic model applied by Hutchisons Builders could feasibly be applied in small and medium sized enterprises (SME). Research by Jobs Queensland (2016) for example finds that larger firms with more than 50 employees, a human resources department and have been in operation for longer than ten years have higher retention and completion rates than very small businesses with few staff — and often requiring support.
The forum discussion concluded that while there are some good practice examples in small businesses, this group of employers will probably always need the additional support provided by bodies such as group training organisations, Australian Apprenticeship Support Network providers and industry associations. Similarly apprentices in SMEs can be isolated from supports, and strategies are needed to ensure they can access the mentoring and support they need.
Efforts should focus on a systematic support strategy for this cohort of employers and apprentices which joins up a number of initiatives recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Examples of SME supports identified by forum participants included:
The teaming up of large businesses with SMEs, with government acting as the facilitator. Hutchisons and other large employers have signed up to the Employment Parity Initiative which aims to achieve more Indigenous employment in industry (DPMC 2016). Big employers have committed to targets and Hutchisons, together with their networks of subcontractors and suppliers (many of which are SMEs), have in the first year organised the employment of 107 people, most being apprenticeships.
A facilitator could bring groups of SMEs and apprentices together in a support network to problem solve and identify good practice. However participants acknowledged this is resource intensive for both governments and small businesses.
Some further steps were identified for action during the forum which could be taken up by stakeholders:
There is value in organising additional discussions with ‘sub-sets’ of forum participants to consider specific opportunities for pursuing reform and improvement in the apprenticeship system. In particular, this could look at the issues of consistency, adequacy of supports and strategies as well as investigate promising practices and new models.
There is a need for more data and information to help answer the big questions — like why apprentices and employers are attracted to the apprenticeship model and the reasons they stay or leave. There is potential to develop a new research approach based on some of the key questions identified as most critical by the roundtables; including currency and a comprehensive understanding of both employer and apprentice perspectives throughout the entire apprenticeship life cycle.
Greater analysis is required to clearly identify the range, purpose, impact and value of
pre-apprenticeships and to identify whether those who do a pre-apprenticeship program are more likely to commence or complete an apprenticeship or not.
Evaluation of the merits and benefits to a wide stakeholder group of repeating the Apprentice and Trainee Destination Survey (in a more updated form), to provide greater knowledge of factors that influence apprentice decision making to commence and complete, as well the factors that influence employers to take on apprentices.
Undertaking investigations of what marketing strategies, communication channels and promotion of information pathways are currently in use and what would be of most value to help raise the profile of apprenticeships with a range key influencers and potential apprentices and employers.
There is value in:
conducting broader analysis to identify the underlying reasons why some group training organisations are not achieving desired levels of completions and identifying strategies to rectify the causes
exploring why delivery under the former National Workforce Development Fund resulted in higher completion rates.
In relation to small and medium sized enterprises, what would a systematic support strategy for SMEs look like and could we better utilise the forum expertise to identify this?
And finally, using ideas generated from the forum around career advice issues to shape the new National Career Education Strategy — especially as these relate to schools and career advisers — should be a focus.