Careers in vocational education and training: What are they really like?

By Michele Simons, Roger Harris, Val Pudney, Berwyn Clayton Research report 22 April 2009 ISBN 978 1 921412 94 3 print; 978 1 921412 95 0 web


As part of a program of research examining the capability of vocational education and training (VET) providers, this study examines the career pathways of a wide range of VET employees. It found that careers in VET are characterised by high levels of mobility and self-directed career behaviour aimed at achieving two outcomes: job satisfaction and security of employment.


About the research

Little is known about the vocational education and training (VET) workforce. In particular, little is known about the nature of careers and career pathways in VET. This is an issue, given the age of the current VET workforce.

This study examines the nature of career pathways for various groups of VET employees, including teachers, general staff and educational managers. It did this principally through a survey of nearly 1100 staff from 43 public and private providers.

While the project is a first step in reconceptualising careers and developing new and better employment arrangements, other work remains to be done. This includes developing useful typologies of those who work in the sector, as well as how their careers begin and develop, and how they work and want to work.

Key messages

  • Careers in VET are characterised by high levels of mobility, with VET staff largely focused on two outcomes—job satisfaction and security of employment.
  • Because staff strongly value job satisfaction and the esteem and support of their colleagues and managers, VET leaders and managers need to create working environments that meet the aspirations of staff. This will be a key determinant of successful workforce development strategies in the future.
  • Current professional development in the sector is not even handed. Staff in management positions are best served by existing arrangements. Teachers and general staff are less well accommodated by the available mechanisms.

The study is part of a program of research examining the factors which affect and help build the capability of VET providers. Readers interested in other components of the research program on building VET provider capability, of which this report is a component, should visit

Reports of particular interest will be those by Callan et al. (2007) on leadership (, Smith and Hawke (2008) on human resource management ( and Hawke (2008) on workforce development (

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Context and approach

The nature of career pathways available to the vocational education and training (VET) workforce is being influenced by the casualised and ageing character of the workforce, a broadening of the types of employees in VET, and changes to the nature of work in the sector.

The aim of this study was to explore the nature of career pathways for staff in the Australian VET workforce. It included a detailed literature review and a national survey which collected data from staff employed in 43 registered training organisations (22 public and 21 private). (See the support documents accompanying this report for the literature and the survey instrument.) Over one thousand people—including teachers, educational managers and support staff—responded to the survey. Thirty-one brief interviews were also conducted with self-nominated survey respondents to learn more about their experience of careers in the sector

Key findings

Careers in the VET sector are notable for their diversity. They are shaped by both individual and organisational concerns, as well as by the nature and structure of the different occupations that make up the sector’s workforce.

From the survey responses, it is clear that VET staff also understand the concept of career in diverse ways. Just over 40% of respondents expressed views of careers as pathways which they follow and which lead to progression, promotion and opportunities for movement within the system. On the other hand, 24% held views of careers as working lives that provide learning, enjoyment, change and personal development. A further 35% of respondents described careers in ways that reflected a blending of these two perspectives.

Significantly, respondents reported that their decisions about their careers were more often driven by internal considerations such as job satisfaction, support from colleagues and their own self-esteem and confidence than workload issues and the availability of full-time work. Factors such as holding qualifications, personal ambition and family responsibilities also featured prominently for teaching staff, while, for general staff, support from managers, work–life balance and the availability of permanent, ongoing work and ensuring they could meet their financial responsibilities rated more highly.

The survey highlighted the casualised nature of entry positions in the teaching workforce compared with general staff or those entering management, who more frequently commence in permanent and full-time roles. Beginning teachers and trainers were older than the general staff entering VET and also often had working lives that included work outside the sector. Many considered this outside work to be their primary employment. For most teachers and trainers, the VET sector was usually not their first employment experience, with many having extensive experience before making a career change into VET. On the other hand, most of the entry positions for general staff were full-time and, for almost one-third of this group, employment in the sector was preceded by a period outside the paid workforce. For the vast majority of general staff, work in the sector was their only form of employment.

Entry into management roles from outside the sector were less common, particularly in public training providers, where the pathway seemed to be well defined for teachers, who usually took up these roles to advance their careers. Entry into job roles where teaching was combined with either management or general staff roles appeared to be more common among private training providers.

One of the generally accepted features of the working lives of VET staff participating in this study was their occupational mobility and their changeable work roles. Two-thirds of respondents reported that they had made between one and five moves during their employment in the sector. This is, perhaps, not remarkable for teachers and trainers, given that they had already made a significant career decision to leave their work in industry and opt to work in the VET sector. For general staff, it appears that this flexible orientation to working life depends on age, experience in the sector and the timing of their entry into the sector.

Staff mobility can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, VET organisations have been successful in managing their workforces to the extent that they have been able to create a type of intra-organisational mobility or career path. The adoption of self-directed career behaviour by staff is also a marker of the flexibility and agility now required of both themselves and the providers they work for, if both are to thrive in a competitive training market.

On the other hand, the high level of mobility of staff within an organisation (particularly teaching staff) may be viewed as a strategy to cope with working lives that no longer offer traditional career pathways. Rather than ‘progression’ being measured by promotion or changing modes of employment from hourly-paid to contract work, to permanent appointment, progression is made in less direct ways. It is achieved through a series of opportunities that prepare staff for a wider range of roles, making them increasingly valuable to the organisation and hence enabling them to have a more satisfying and permanent work life—especially as they have to maintain the currency of, and develop, both their vocational and teaching skills.

While those who have been employed the longest plan to move out of the sector in the next five years, so too do significant numbers of more recently employed staff. Of staff employed in the period 1997 to 2006, 41% were either unsure or did not believe they would be in the sector in five years time. This may be because people are not always young when they move into the sector. For younger staff, including general staff who may be working in roles that enable the development of transferable skills, the VET sector may be a stepping stone to their next work role outside the sector to use the skills they gained while working in it.

Given the reported mobility of staff within the sector, it is not surprising that respondents reported moderate-to-high levels of engagement with both structured and informal professional development over the preceding three years. While teaching staff undertook formal professional development more often than general staff, these experiences, along with other forms of professional development, did not seem to be making a contribution to their ability to change positions within the sector. On the other hand, VET staff holding educational management roles believed that the professional development they undertook equipped them well to maintain and change work roles in the sector.

Implications for policy and practice

The findings of this study point to the importance of understanding the differences that exist between different groups of VET staff on matters relating to their careers and why these differences occur. A better understanding of how careers work in different types of VET organisations, particularly different types of providers, is also needed.

Managing the movement of different groups of staff into the VET sector warrants more considered and systematic attention. Industry is by far the largest source of recruitment for teachers and trainers. Maintaining and supporting these transitions from industry into providers needs to be more effectively planned and managed if the numbers of people moving into teaching and training roles are to be sustained or increased. This may be difficult in a tight labour market, where higher salaries can act to keep potential teachers and trainers in industry. Given the highly casualised nature of entry-level employment, teachers and trainers may also need better support to help them to juggle the demands of several employment roles, as well as family and other personal commitments, as they seek to establish themselves more permanently in the sector. General staff, on the other hand, may need different types of support as they attempt to establish themselves in the VET workforce. As already noted, more recent recruits seem to be less certain about their futures in the VET sector. Therefore more attention to their needs is required to ensure that valuable corporate skills and knowledge are not lost unnecessarily.

The provision of improved opportunities for continuous learning for all VET staff is an obvious implication of this study. However, these opportunities should not only be concerned with equipping staff with the capability to perform their current work role; they should also help staff to enhance their career(s) through attaining the type and quality of work and working life they want. Herein are two significant problems. On the one hand, job/role-specific training with immediate and direct benefit to the current employer is needed. However, this approach can be overly focused on ‘gap training’ and too concerned with maintaining the status quo at the cost of adopting more innovative and flexible approaches. However, providing professional development that focuses more directly on the development of generic capabilities may be better able to drive desired change. This type of professional development places greater emphasis on promoting mobility and flexibility for staff and ultimately helps organisations to deploy their workforces in ways that better match the demands—and changing demands—for their services.

The second problem relates to the ability of a registered training organisation to maintain its workforce in an increasingly competitive labour market environment. Enabling staff to develop capacities to allow them to take advantage of opportunities for changed work roles may also contribute to their becoming more attractive to other potential employers. Not providing learning and development opportunities, however, may lead to a perception of a disengaged organisation which believes that professional development (and hence career capability) is the sole responsibility of the individual. In a context where all staff strongly value job satisfaction and the support of colleagues and managers, this narrow approach is not ideal and may mean they look for alternative work anyway. VET leaders are therefore being challenged to think about the work environment they provide and how it impacts on the quality of relationships they have with their staff.

These findings have implications for the training and development of managers and team leaders. The capability of managers to forge high-quality working environments for staff and within structures and systems which enable them to foster and develop their skills and careers will be a key determinant of successful workforce development strategies in VET in the future. Get this wrong, and the VET sector will not be able to sustain its role in supporting the development of the Australian workforce at large.


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