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The changing nature and patterns of work and implications for VET: Review of research


11 June 1999

ISBN 0 87397 523 5


This review of research provides an overview of the literature on the way in which work is changing and the effects such changes have on the VET sector. The nature of the changes is described, including the decrease in full-time permanent work, the move towards increasing part-time and casual work and employment shifts across industries. If VET programs are to be judged successful they need to address the needs of multiple clients simultaneously, and be tolerant of diversity while balancing the tensions between national and/or State policy frameworks and more localised needs. Regional frameworks to connect VET with local and community development networks are particularly important.


Executive summary

Publication title: Review of Research: The changing nature and patterns of work and implications for VET

This review offers an overview of recent literature on changes in the nature and patterns of work and their implications for vocational education and training (VET). As a service industry, VET faces the double bind of coping with these changes and simultaneously providing high quality goods and services to help other industries to do so. It is apparent that the changing nature and patterns of work present significant challenges to the VET sector. The complexity and ambiguity of changes suggest that the resulting challenges are unlikely to be addressed effectively through simplistic strategies or universal policies. The requirements of multiple stakeholders and regional/local communities need to be taken into account.

The changing nature of work

Changes in the nature and patterns of work are not easily captured in a single frame of reference. There are shifts occurring in the nature of work itself and in the composition of the workforce. Looking at the structure of the workforce as a whole, it can be noted that:

  • the workforce has become more 'feminised' through shifting patterns of participation for men and women
  • unemployment has re-emerged as a significant factor
  • there are increasing numbers of workers employed under part-time and casual arrangements
  • employment has shifted across industries with declining jobs in manufacturing and increases in service industries
  • the workforce is less unionised

The review notes that the universality of the full-time permanent job, usually held by the male breadwinner of the family, is increasingly a thing of the past.

Although many people still think of this as the norm, such positions now tend to be held by a relatively privileged minority. Instead, there is evolving a more fragmented labour market characterised by a new distribution of paid work, in which the jobs of many people are precarious while those with full-time jobs find themselves working longer hours.

These shifts constitute a complex restructuring of the world of work. However, the picture is not so homogeneous. The broad generalisations may not hold true for particular industries or within particular circumstances.

It appears that knowledge has become a significant new form of capital and businesses are increasingly recognising its value. Some researchers link knowledge and its generation to innovation and competitive advantage?thus highlighting the significance of learning for work, learning at work and learning about work.

The changes affecting workplaces have generated mixed blessings for workers. In some cases the calls for 'working smarter' have manifested as the darker side of workplace reform. Work has been intensified as calls to do more with less become almost universal; sustained (or increased) production with fewer workers; better quality in shorter time; zero waste and zero defects. The tenets of lean production have spread from manufacturing industry into other sectors of the economy.

Changing work patterns may also alter traditional patterns of living, as work and time out of work become blurred. In some cases the boundaries are almost completely broken down, as home becomes the place of work.

Implications for VET

This review suggests the need for diversity and creativity in responses at all levels of the VET system, from national policy through to program provision at the grass-roots level. The complexity and lack of consistency also suggest the need for tolerance of difference and, at times, contradiction. These may be difficult qualities to maintain at the policy level.

The literature suggests the importance of recognising that there are multiple clients or stakeholders involved with VET. Successful programs appear to be characterised by their ability to address simultaneously the needs of these multiple clients. It may be noted that at times the needs of the diverse clients may contradict one another. In such cases negotiation and mediation skills become very important.

If managing the needs of diverse clients represents one key tension in VET, then managing the tension between overarching national (or State) policy frameworks and more localised needs and concerns is another. This review suggests the importance of regional frameworks and initiatives to connect VET with local and community development networks.

Finally, the review suggests that current moves to develop and promote national training packages with both endorsed and non-endorsed components may provide a means to address the diversity of apparent needs. For this to happen, however, a paradigm shift is required; from a focus on predetermined content for delivery to an emphasis on effective dialogue with the stakeholders on designs for effective learning.

Directions for further research

The review has identified four areas for further investigation. In brief, these are summarised as follows.

Developing learning communities

This topic suggests the importance of questions about the nature of communities and their capacity to manage change, particularly in the context of the prevailing market philosophies. What characterises an effective learning community and how might such communities be developed? How can regional, local and community needs be identified and expressed as 'demand' in ways which will stimulate appropriate 'supply' in the VET market? What are the resource and policy implications?

Collective competence

The VET system has placed considerable emphasis upon an individualistic approach to competence. However, it may be that group or collective competence is even more important. Collective competence implies a range of skills within a group and the group's ability to identify and harness effectively the particular skills (or groups of skills) for any given circumstance. Is it possible to identify the features of collective competence in action? How is it manifested in various settings, such as communities and workplaces? What is the relationship between individual competencies and group, or collective, performance?

Workplace learning

Despite recent useful work in this field there is a need to further investigate how Australian workplaces function as learning environments. What stimulates and sustains effective organisational and collective learning at enterprise level and what are the barriers? How might the barriers be best overcome? Such investigations would also shed more light on what appears to be a significant issue - the nature of informal, incidental and opportunistic learning, and that based on critical incidents within the workplace.

Implications for VET work

It is not yet clear how wider trends and changes in the labour market are going to affect VET as an industry. Is there a relationship between the quality of VET programs and the modes of employment of teachers? What will be the long-term effect of trends towards casualisation of VET teachers' employment? Is there evidence of work intensification in the VET sector; how is it manifested? What are its implications?


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