Have green skills become browned off?

24 May 2010

Opinion piece

By Tom Karmel

Campus Review

I'm not sure whether the metaphor in the headline is appropriate given how green the countryside is in Eastern and South Eastern Australia following some very decent rains. However, unlike the countryside which is now greener than it has been for some time, the 'green skills' movement has lost a good deal of its earlier momentum.

Over the last couple of years we saw a tumult of activity aimed at reforming vocational education and training in order to address the implications of climate change.

In the world of vocational education and training -I'm not so familiar with what has been going on in higher education- there has been a plethora of reports and action groups. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment, multiple federal and state government departments, the National Quality Council and the industry skills councils have all got into the act. Major ‘green’ initiatives have included:

  • a request in November 2008 by the Ministerial council to the National Quality council to incorporate a Green Skills strategy into its 2009 work plan
  • an announcement by the Prime Minister of
    • 10,000 places for young job seekers to build their skills through participating in environmental work experience and training programs
    • 30,000 apprentices in carbon exposed industries to graduate over the next two years with qualifications that include clean and green skills
    • all new apprentices commencing after 1 January 2010 will graduate with a core set of green skills, knowledge and training
  • each state and territory having its own policy requirements for training providers
  • an action plan from the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts: Living Sustainably: Australian Government's National Action Plan for Education for sustainability 2009, with one objective being that the VET sector incorporates sustainability in all national training packages and implements sustainable campus management
  • Environmental sustainability: an Industry approach produced by the industry skills councils. This report identifies over 120 specific units of competence relating to sustainability in 25 training packages
  • the national VET Sector Sustainability Policy and Action Plan (2009-2012), auspiced by the Ministerial council and produced the national VET Sector Sustainability Action Group
  • A National Green Skills Agreement to be considered by the Ministerial council this November
  • The National Quality Council is undertaking a project to 'analyse the work of Industry Skills Councils, State and Territory Course Accrediting Bodies and Registered Training Organisations to incorporate environmental sustainability into Training Packages Units of competency, VET qualifications, Accredited Courses and Skill Sets' (Precision Consultancy 2009)
  • The Government will provide $5.3 million over four years to implement the National Green Skills Agreement, announced by the Government on 30 July 2009 as part of its Clean Sustainable Skills package

There is no doubt that the sustainability and 'green' agenda has been embraced by policy makers in the education and training sphere.

However, at the political level, attention has shifted away from climate change, emissions trading regimes, carbon taxes and the like to health care and taxation.

For my own interest, I dug out some statistics on coverage of the issue in the media. As can be seen from the figure it seems that the oomph has gone out of green skills.

Figure 1

The issue then is whether this 'browning off' is a matter of concern. I do not think it is. I do not wish to get into an argument about climate change -I am happy to accept that environmental factors will influence the way that economies evolve. Rather, I am arguing that the 'green' movement potentially did the sector a disservice by distorting the way the education and training should naturally adapt as the economy develops. That is, the policy makers put too much emphasis on one specific issue.

The fundamental skills required in the labour market evolve relatively slowly. It was wrong to think that we needed to shake up the system in any dramatic way. For example, plumbers may need to be able to install grey water systems but they are still plumbers. The new techniques they use will be driven by the way technology is changing and this is occurring independently of any sustainability issues. The way business operates is driven by cost, new technologies and new regulations. For example, less copper piping is now used in houses with much of the pipe work being flexible plastic. This change is not about sustainability; it is about the relative costs of plastic and copper.

At the other end of the scale similar arguments apply. There are now modules on environmental economics and environmental law, but these are essentially the application of standard disciplinary approaches to new areas. Sustainability issues (for example, an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax) will change relative costs and may involve specific legislation covering environmental degradation, but sustainability is only one of many factors. For many businesses the change in relative costs implied by an appreciation of the Australian dollar from 60 US cents to 95 US cents will have a greater impact on the way business is done than the imposition of an emissions trading scheme.

To me, it seems that the whole green skills episode illustrates how easy it is for the system to be seduced by specific issues that are politically ‘hot’. Our training system is purportedly industry led, but it is also significantly funded by commonwealth and state governments. Governance arrangements mean that pressure can be applied for qualifications and systems to adapt to the latest policy imperative. The green skills push consumed the energies of the sector's bureaucrats from the level of Ministerial Councils down to individual training packages but will it help the system respond to the ever changing needs of the labour market? I think not; it is better to focus on broad-based skills which allow workers to continuously update specific skills and knowledge, rather than on green or any other colour skills.

Dr Tom Karmel is Managing Director of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).

Skilling and reskilling for our (greener) future is available to download from the NCVER website http://www.ncver.edu.au/publications/2235.html