Industry currency and professional obsolescence: what can industry tell us?

By Berwyn Clayton, Pam Jonas, Regan Harding, Mark Harris, Melinda Toze Research report 21 June 2013 ISBN 978 1 922056 56 6

Description

Industry currency and professional obsolescence refer to the competence of an individual to perform their job. The knowledge required in occupations does not remain static so workers need to continuously update their skills. As vocational education and training (VET) practitioners train the individuals entering these occupations, it is important for them to ensure their industry knowledge and skills are current. This report explores the issues of industry currency and professional obsolescence from the viewpoints of those working in the trades and the professions, with the aim to examine their suitability for VET. The authors suggest that a more strategic approach to industry currency needs to be adopted by training organisations, while individual practitioners should look at regularly updating their industry skills.

Summary

About the research

Industry currency and professional obsolescence are terms that relate to the capacity of an individual to continue to perform their job. Having up-to-date skills, knowledge and experience in a particular industry is known as industry currency, whereas in the professions a lack of ongoing learning in order to retain competence is known as professional obsolescence. The knowledge required in occupations does not remain static; for example, changes in technology or the development of new products mean that workers need to learn new skills and keep abreast of these changes. This is of importance to vocational education and training (VET) because VET practitioners are training the individuals moving into these occupations. Therefore, VET practitioners need to ensure that their industry skills and knowledge are kept current.

This report explores the issues of industry currency and professional obsolescence from the viewpoint of those working in the plumbing, hairdressing and printing industries, as well as professionals working in the science, engineering, human resources and health sectors. The focus of the report was to investigate how those working in these areas maintain industry currency and prevent professional obsolescence, the aim being to find out how VET practitioners might implement some of these practices.

Key messages

  • Strategies used in the plumbing, hairdressing and printing industries to maintain skills include networking, attending industry events and vendor training, reading industry magazines and trade journals, and undertaking online research.
  • Employers in the science, engineering, human resources and health professions are supportive of ongoing training for their employees and have processes in place to ensure it occurs. The majority of this training also takes place in the workplace.
  • In both the trades and the professions there is ready acceptance that for updating strategies to be successful there needs to be a joint commitment from both the individual and the employer.

The authors suggest that to progress the maintenance of industry currency in vocational education and training, training organisations need to adopt a strategic approach that supports updating industry knowledge and encourages practitioners to interact with employers and industry bodies. The authors also argue that individual practitioners need to be committed to the ongoing updating of their industry experience and knowledge.

 

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Of all the educational sectors, the vocational education and training (VET) sector is arguably the most closely linked to industry and employers. A range of bodies, including the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency (formerly Skills Australia), also stress the importance of the quality and currency of the sector's education and training in helping to equip Australia's current and future workforce needs. VET practitioners play a crucial role in ensuring this quality and currency. For this reason the Standards for NVR Registered Training Organisations (SNR 4.4/SNR 15.4) require that, in addition to maintaining and enhancing their skills as teachers and trainers, they must also be able to demonstrate they are maintaining current industry skills. However, there is evidence of currency gaps in the VET workforce and there is also a lack of understanding about how best to manage and maintain industry currency within the sector itself. As a consequence, industry currency has become an increasing concern for industry, the sector and its regulators.

The purpose of this research was to investigate currency from two perspectives: how industry currency is maintained in a number of vocations; and how the professions avoid professional obsolescence by maintaining and enhancing their professional skills through ongoing learning and development. The aim of this dual approach was to develop a greater understanding of how the ongoing development and maintenance of industry currency of VET practitioners could be supported.

Research purpose and method

Twenty-two semi-structured interviews were conducted with employers in the hairdressing, plumbing and printing industries and a further eight with auditors and representatives of the relevant industry skills councils and industry/professional associations. The industry sectors chosen were seen to be ones in which employees had to maintain currency in the face of ongoing technological and/or regulatory change. Nine interviews were undertaken with learning and development managers in engineering, science, health and human resource companies (referred to here as knowledge-based organisations). A pre-interview questionnaire was also completed by these learning and development managers.

Key findings

From both a trades and professional viewpoint, industry currency was not a term with which informants were familiar. Learning and development managers used the term 'professional competence' to encompass the concepts of currency, updating and upskilling. Employers in the trades preferred the term 'industry relevance', defining it as a solid grounding in the industry gained from being trained and employed in the industry. They considered industry relevance was more critical than currency, particularly given that industry fundamentals basically remained stable.

Employers, auditors and industry representatives all acknowledged the difficulties associated with keeping up with emerging technological innovations, regulatory and legislative change and shifts in client demands. The plumbing, hairdressing and printing employers considered that it was not possible for trainers and assessors to keep abreast of every change and confirmed that they struggled to do so themselves. There was also the suggestion that they trusted training providers to employ people with industry-relevant skills and that industry currency was not something they were overly concerned with.

Employers did suggest, however, that the strategies they used themselves to keep current were equally appropriate for VET trainers and assessors. The most favoured ways of doing so were attending trade events, reading industry magazines, undertaking online research and engaging in industry networks. Significantly, product manufacturer/vendor training was also available in most industries. This was rated highly as it provided exposure to new equipment, resources and training to support their introduction into workplaces. Within the knowledge-based organisations, conferences, technical seminars, industry events and networking were all highly rated, as was training in new technology as it emerged.

Regardless of the approaches adopted to build skills and knowledge, employers in the trades wanted to see trainers and assessors attending industry events, engaging in industry networks and interacting with employers. Industry skills council representatives and industry association personnel confirmed these views. The auditors' views, by contrast, did not necessarily align with those of industry and there was some questioning of the value of industry events and online research. Auditors were much more concerned to see evidence of planning for industry currency and the application of any learning gained through updating activities. In effect, it was not about the strategies being used to maintain industry currency, but rather how the ongoing learning was taken up and used to inform teaching practice.

Auditors also noted that there was some confusion in the standards relating to industry currency and competence. They were of the view that there needed to be clarification of the terms and greater consideration of what constituted appropriate evidence of industry currency. The information contained in training packages was not necessarily useful for this purpose. Importantly, employers expressed distinct industry differences and preferences in approaches to keeping up to date. A 'one size fits all' approach, therefore, would seem to be inappropriate and any audit processes would need to take into account the context, location and type of work that trainers and assessors were involved in.

From the perspective of those in the knowledge-based organisations it was evident that effective updating was dependent on a healthy organisational climate, which sent the message that keeping current was a critical and expected activity for employees. Across both the trades and the professions employers were supportive of ongoing training and had established processes for ensuring it occurred. In the large organisations, updating was strategically planned, collaboratively undertaken and monitored and reviewed on a regular basis. There was sufficient flexibility in the way work was done to allow for 'just in time' training to meet emerging needs, and skills profiles were regularly assessed to ensure that industry changes could be addressed in the short- and long-term. Those employees who consistently updated their skills were rewarded with bonuses and promotions; those who did not were sometimes faced with sanctions. Organisational values and goals inevitably made clear the importance of current industry skills and knowledge to the knowledge-leading companies participating in the study.

The workplace was invariably identified as the most useful location for keeping current. Although formal learning was valued, greater emphasis was placed on structuring work in a way that allowed informal, peer-to-peer and collaborative learning. Seventy per cent of all training in the knowledgebased organisations took place in the workplace and was fully supported. Close contact with experts was viewed as a valuable learning strategy and encouraged. Similarly, in the small-to-medium trade enterprises, learning was a collaborative activity, with employer and employees generally learning together.

Employers and industry representatives in this study indicated that they themselves could assist in keeping VET practitioners abreast of changes in industry. While there was some evidence of this having occurred, most informants noted that they had not been approached by trainers seeking help to keep current. Others indicated that they had learnt from trainers who were sometimes more current in certain areas. This situation signals the importance of practitioners developing personal networks with employers and others in industry. It also highlights that individual trainers and assessors need to accept responsibility for ensuring their currency. In every instance, there was ready acceptance that maintaining currency was a responsibility to be shared by the individual and the organisation — without joint commitment updating strategies were likely to fail.

The findings from this research suggest a number of ways whereby the currency of trainers and assessors could be improved. From a system perspective, there needs to be greater clarity around defining the term 'industry currency' and determining what is required for individuals to be deemed current. The divergent views in various industries about updating approaches mean that these need to be taken into account in the auditing process. Professional development also remains a major issue in the sector and without targeted funding to address industry currency it is likely to continue to be a significant concern.

For training providers, industry currency requires strategic thinking and planning. Not all trainers and assessors require the constant revitalisation of their knowledge and skills; however, changes in regulation, technology and client demand impact on training and training packages. Thus, individuals who are responsible for implementing innovations will need ongoing support to keep abreast of these. Collaborative, informal or incidental learning in the workplace can provide the platform for such upskilling. The approaches adopted by knowledge-based organisations emphasise the importance of having a colleague in the workplace to provide support for learning, along with project-based work through which new skills can be developed. Equally critical are ongoing industry engagement and networking. While these activities may be individual in nature, their value should not be underestimated, particularly as employers view these activities favourably.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that client demands and technological and regulatory change will remain issues in the VET environment, meaning that practitioners' currency will be an ongoing challenge. Strategies such as continuing professional development and close engagement with industry are valuable and valued, but require funding to support and sustain them. Further, organisations and individual practitioners require innovative thinking to determine how updating might more effectively occur in the workplace. Importantly, this demands that training providers and individual practitioners recognise industry currency as the key to the ongoing credibility of the sector.

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