In a recent report on ABC News (first published in The Conversation), Stephen Parker, Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and partner in KPMG Australia, wrote about the growing need to rethink how the education sector connects to the world of work. The reason for this, he pointed out, is that there is currently a wide gulf between what students are learning and the occupations they end up doing when they’ve graduated.
Backing up his argument, he cited the following statistics:
- Less than 30% of vocational students in Australia work in the areas in which they studied
- Only 54% of all bachelor’s degree holders said their qualification was a formal requirement for their job
- Just 69 per cent of graduates in 2014 held a full-time job four months after graduation, compared to 81 per cent a decade earlier
What figures like these point to is an education system that is clearly not as well aligned with the economic realities as it could or perhaps should be.
One possible solution Professor Parker drew attention to is degree apprenticeships, which were launched in the UK in 2015. As he pointed out, the purpose of these new qualifications is that they are designed to bridge the gap between technical skills, employment and higher education, and they also have the added benefit for students of being free of tuition fees, since these are paid by means a 0.5% levy imposed by the UK Government on employers that have a turnover of more than £3 million (A$ 4.8 million) per year.
But whilst Degree Apprenticeships and indeed a greater emphasis on normal apprenticeships may well be a possible long-term answer for Australia, it is important that we make sure we get to the real nub of the problem, which is this: How can we produce a system that really is both more reflective of the needs of industry and employers, and which will mean that more students end up utilising the skills learnt during their studies in their workplaces?
At root the question is really one of supply and demand. Fundamentally, education providers are suppliers of talent and skills, and employers are those who demand the talent and the skills. If there is a big misalignment, as the figures quoted by Professor Parker suggest, then it is caused by the fact that the supply of talent and skills offered by education providers does not adequately correspond to the demands for talent and skills required by employers. The solution is therefore to move away from what is, for the most part a supply-driven system, to a more demand-led system. But how?
To come back to the example of degree apprenticeships, we have recently been working with a number of universities in the UK to help them establish the levels of demand for skills in their region, so that they can then go on to develop a degree apprenticeship programme that is truly reflective of the needs of local industry.
For example, Sheffield Hallam University, which is the third largest in the UK, commissioned us to research four sectors – construction; advanced manufacturing; digital; and management – and to establish the level of demand for occupations in those areas. This included looking at:
- The skills that are currently driving the sector, together with projected demand to 2022
- The occupations with the highest percentage of employees with a degree or higher
- Current and future demand for these top occupations
We were also commissioned by Birmingham City University to undertake a complete scan of their region, in order to establish where there might be demand for new degree apprenticeships. This included:
- An overview of industries in the region, identifying the key sectors driving growth
- A workforce analysis, looking at demographic, unemployment and qualification levels in the region
- An identification of the occupations with the greatest potential for degree apprenticeships
You can read more details of both these cases here.
What these approaches are all about is moving away from a supply-led approach, which tends to make assumptions about what skills are needed, to a demand-led approach, which first looks at what employers in the region actually need. Or to put it another way, both universities determined that they would first identify the needs of industry in their region, before using this as a basis to develop an adequate response.
This approach does not have to be confined to degree apprenticeships. The same principle applies to normal apprenticeships, where once again the need of the day is to identify industry needs prior to planning how to respond to them. And in fact this same approach can and perhaps should be used in normal curriculum planning. If less than 30% of vocational students in Australia work in the areas in which they studied, then there is pressing reason for the providers of that vocational education to take a serious look at whether their curriculums are really as aligned to the needs of employers as they might be.
In conclusion, any attempts to solve the problems highlighted by Professor Parker which don’t begin by identifying the skills needs of local employers and industry, are unlikely to work. Yet if we start by using good local industry and occupations data to first identify those needs, then skills planning – be it apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, or just ordinary curriculum – has a solid foundation from which it can move to improve the alignment of skills supply to employer demand.
To find out how we can help your institution identify the skills needs in your region, contact Anthony Horne at email@example.com