A huge learning curve: TAFE practitioners' ways of working with private enterprises

By Roger Harris, Michele Simons, Julian Moore Research report 4 November 2005 ISBN 1 920896 89 9 print; 1 920896 90 2 web


Increasingly, vocational education and training (VET) practitioners work with industry and within private enterprises in arrangements that provide training for workers. This report, based on interviews with TAFE practitioners and managers, enterprise managers and on-the-job learners, highlights the expanding roles of TAFE practitioners in these training arrangements. It finds that in private enterprises TAFE practitioners introduce new elements to learning, provide support to managers and workers, build links between the organisation and TAFE and raise training standards. They also foster a learning culture, support individual workers, and act as a model of lifelong learning. The impact of TAFE practitioners' work is also analysed from the perspective of the enterprises, and findings indicate that it is valued by industry counterparts. However, the success of the training arrangement, which can significantly improve learning in the workplace, depends on establishing effective relationships between TAFE and industry.


About the research

This study explores the roles of technical and further education (TAFE) practitioners working with and within private enterprises. It provides an in-depth analysis of six case studies in Victoria (metropolitan) and South Australia (metropolitan and regional), as well as several pilot interviews in New South Wales.

  • Forming linkages between technical and further education (TAFE) institutes and enterprises depends on the organisations' understanding their respective cultures, ways of operating and priorities. Sustainable linkages depend heavily upon committing the time and energy needed to establish personal relationships between TAFE practitioners and enterprise members.
  • TAFE institutes need to select the 'right' people for collaborative linkages. These practitioners need to become familiar with the enterprise environment, culture and networks rapidly; have, or develop vital skills, such as 'sussing out' what is required; be able to identify skill deficits and options for 'top up' training; be flexible and able to adapt training approaches to the flow of the enterprise's work; work collaboratively in teams of TAFE and enterprise staff; and sensitively customise training methods and materials.
  • Training and learning strategies that are needs-based, just-in-time and very interactive are highly valued approaches to facilitating learning in enterprise-based environments.
  • These workplace-focused approaches require that practitioners work in different ways from those of their colleagues based in institutes. Moreover, these practitioners are under less direct supervision from their managers. These approaches therefore have human resource and industrial relations implications for the institutes concerned, particularly in terms of their responsibilities, and how key performance indicators are framed and monitored.
  • There is still much work to be done in modifying perceptions about policies and practices that work against effective linkages, in educating enterprises and TAFE practitioners about how to implement training packages creatively, and in reducing negative perceptions of TAFE held by industry.

Executive summary


Policy initiatives such as user choice and training packages have been significant contributors in the move towards a more industry-driven vocational education and training (VET) system. An important consequence of this shift has been greater pressure on industries to provide opportunities for training in the workplace, and a reclaiming of the workplace as an authentic site for learning. In effect, vocational learning is increasingly being de-institutionalised, and VET practitioners are being increasingly encouraged to ‘get out into industry’. The key issue, therefore, is: In what ways and how effectively do public VET practitioners work with private enterprises?


Given this changing relationship between public VET and private industry, this study explores the roles of technical and further education (TAFE) practitioners working with and within private enterprises. The research objectives were to:

  • identify how TAFE practitioners work with and within enterprises
  • analyse the perceptions of these ways of working held by TAFE managers, TAFE practitioners, enterprise personnel and on-the-job learners
  • evaluate the effectiveness of these ways of working
  • draw implications for how these ways of working may be enhanced.


The study involved an in-depth analysis of six case studies in Victoria (metropolitan) and South Australia (metropolitan and regional), as well as several pilot interviews in New South Wales. Each case study comprised a TAFE institute and an enterprise with which there was some form of linkage. In total, 34 interviews were held with four types of participants—TAFE managers, TAFE practitioners, enterprise personnel and workers learning on the job. These participants came from different industries: hospitality (cookery, food and beverage), retail (entertainment), transport and warehousing, wine and automotive (business studies). The case study sites were therefore spread across a number of locations, industries and TAFE institutes, as well as across a range of enterprises, thus providing some diversity. At the same time, the need for compromise because of time, funding and the intensive nature of the research methodology was recognised.

Prior to the establishment of the links between TAFE and the enterprises, each of the companies had some learning arrangements in place. However, these had been haphazard, informal, relatively unsupported and comparatively ineffectual; hence the desire to develop links with an external training provider to make nationally accredited training available, and to provide specialist training and assessment expertise. Moreover, company personnel neither necessarily had time to undertake training, nor believed it was a core activity. Clearly therefore, an external provider was ideally placed to fulfil this role.

In each of the case studies an external learning arrangement was being introduced which overlaid existing learning systems. While there were tensions in such overlay, and it took time and energy to resolve difficulties and minimise disruptions, the interview data from this study from four different types of participants indicate that the external providers’ways of working contribute significantly to improved learning within these enterprises. For all concerned, TAFE staff and enterprise personnel, the experience of working together constitutes 'a huge learning curve'.

Key themes and findings

Different contexts — different cultures

Perceived differences in culture between enterprises and TAFE institutes were often cited by interviewees. Regarding TAFE, these include: bureaucratic procedures; slowness to respond; lack of knowledge of what practitioners are doing out in industry; a feeling of loss of control on the part of TAFE managers; old technology; and classroom-oriented teaching methods. Regarding industry, the following factors were cited: a lack of knowledge about how training packages work; poor relationships between managers and workers; a tendency to leave training to the external provider; and communication problems between TAFE, the company, the learner and the New Apprenticeships Centre.

Training and learning within the enterprises

There is increasing recognition of the importance of formal training and of instilling in workers the need for ongoing learning. The learning most valued in companies is informal learning on the job from work colleagues. For reasons of relevance, convenience and cost, the preference is for in-house training. Managers'views of learning were not particularly positive initially, but became more so as the benefits of linkage arrangements became clearer. Similarly, the workers'views of learning were less than favourable at the start, but many also became more enthusiastic as the benefits became apparent. Many, however, remained unengaged or reluctant learners.

TAFE—industry linkages

Types of TAFE—industry linkages are heavily dependent on personal relationships. As one TAFE manager insightfully expressed it, 'The shades of what arrangements you can come to are only varied by the nature of people's arrangements with each other'. In this study various types of arrangements have been established. The most common arrangement is where an individual works with an enterprise for a certain number of days or sessions a week. Another model is where a TAFE practitioner is almost totally based within an organisation. A further model, practised very effectively in one case study, is where a group of TAFE practitioners work collaboratively with a group of enterprise trainers.

These case studies were, by definition, examples of TAFE being responsive to industry training needs. They showed this in various ways: negotiating the what, when, how of training; taking on different roles within enterprises; and customising materials, assessment criteria and training methods to the needs of the company.

There is no doubt that there is considerable learning to be done by everyone involved. The TAFE practitioner needs to learn about company environment and culture, that linkages take time and energy, and that timing of learning can often not be determined by them. The TAFE practitioner needs to be flexible and patient, to change methodologies, to customise materials and to listen to enterprise needs. For their part, enterprise staff also need to learn that training can be an investment, that accredited training is important, that gaining a certificate for learning is worthwhile, and to be patient with TAFE procedures.

Expanding roles of TAFE practitioners

The evidence strongly suggests that the roles of TAFE practitioners are evolving and expanding. Apart from the more conventional roles of development, delivery and assessment, TAFE practitioners enlarge horizons and add value by providing a bigger picture beyond any single company. They also provide valuable support both to managers and to workers, and link enterprises and TAFE. They act as employment brokers, as coordinators between companies and New Apprenticeships Centres, as consultants to the managers, and as coaches to the learners on the job.

The most valued characteristics that enable TAFE practitioners to be effective in these roles are seen to be their industry background and their ability to fit in with regular work patterns without disrupting the natural flow of work. Their passion and other interpersonal qualities are also evident, along with their ability to identify and fill needs, to form close relationships with their clients, and their willingness to learn.

As a consequence of close working arrangements with the enterprises, and increasingly spending more time there than in their institutes, TAFE practitioners become closely affiliated with the enterprise to which they are linked. They often come, therefore, to be identified and even named almost as one of the company staff. This is expressed in various ways, such as: 'I feel like I'm actually part of the site, that I'm not external', and 'now part of their furniture'. These close affiliations with the companies, however, have repercussions in the institutes, where some managers acknowledge feelings of loss of control over their practitioner.

Perspectives on the influence of the TAFE practitioners

The various types of interviewees expressed different views on the impact of the TAFE practitioners, but all were favourable. Enterprise staff saw benefits in these linkages, particularly because of established TAFE infrastructure, processes and credibility, the degree of preparation that practitioners had undertaken for their workplace assignments, and their value as 'learning resources'. Learners appreciated their helpfulness, up-to-date information, sharing of personal experiences, explanations, personal attributes and dedication. Ratings on a number of functions were all high, with those relating to assessment being particularly high. The data indicated that the TAFE practitioners were appreciated by their industry counterparts in training.


The ways that TAFE practitioners involved in this study work with and within enterprises can be summarised as including one or more of the following six main roles:

  • bearers of glad tidings: injecting new dimensions in learning arrangements in companies
  • raisers of standards: sharpening and focusing the training as the acknowledged training experts
  • builders of learning culture: serving not only as content trainers, but fulfilling many functions that help to build culture
  • coaches of learning: working one to one, adding value
  • bridges between TAFE and industry: serving to link different cultures for the benefit of both, able to do so because of their often unique backgrounds and experiences
  • models of learning: acting as examples of learners, thereby enhancing their credibility, and modelling lifelong learning.

The report concludes with a consideration of the implications of TAFE—enterprise collaborations for VET managers and practitioners, for company personnel and for policy-makers.


In interpreting the findings, there are two main limitations to this study. First, the case study approach to research is not without its confined boundaries, and is necessarily restricted in its generalisability. It is also largely without a strong theoretical base. Second, the number of completed interviews, particularly in enterprises, was fewer than had been intended. It was extremely difficult to obtain further interviews, for reasons of limited knowledge about the TAFE practitioners’work on site and problems in sudden cancellation of pre-arranged interviews because of work pressures at sites.


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