Sustaining the skill base of technical and further education institutes: TAFE managers' perspectives

By Berwyn Clayton, Thea Fisher, Elvie Hughes Research report 6 September 2005 ISBN 1 920896 75 9 print; 1 920896 76 7 web


The demographic changes in Australia's labour market present challenges for technical and further education (TAFE) institutes. Within TAFE institutes, in which the teaching workforce is older than the overall national labour force, the imminent departure of many teachers endangers its prime asset - its skill and knowledge base. This report examines the approaches managers and leaders in 16 TAFE institutes have undertaken to sustain, develop and renew their workforce and build their organisation's knowledge. It finds that TAFE managers now recognise that maintaining and developing their organisation's skill base is imperative, but that finding approaches to sustain TAFE in the longer term requires more attention.


About the research

  • Australia's technical and further education (TAFE) institutes have an ageing teaching workforce, whose impending departure endangers the institutes' skill base. This is at a time when workplace change demands (from TAFE and the broader vocational education and training [VET] sector) a more highly skilled teaching workforce than ever before. TAFE institutes greatly depend on the vocational competency of their teachers-their technical competency and currency, comprehensive industry know-how, networks and high-level teaching skills-to maintain and build their credibility.
  • Retaining, developing and renewing TAFE institutes' organisational capability involves planned recruitment, and the retention of key mature teaching staff through appropriate incentives and arrangements. More commitment is needed to targeted training and re-training, as well as to strategies which help share the critical knowledge that is otherwise lost as highly experienced teachers leave.
  • TAFE institutes need to draw more upon similar experiences and processes used in other sectors and organisations to maintain their skill base. Such approaches need to be properly resourced, and supported by funding bodies, policy-makers, TAFE management and teachers.

Executive summary

Global competition, changes in technology and market regulation are driving change throughout the world and Australia. We struggle to define these changes within systems we know- describing new work, new work structures and new workers within the new economy, the knowledge economy or the innovation economy. Some who work to make sense of these changes have an even greater responsibility-of training people to live and work in this changed world while they simultaneously deal with change in their own lives.

This is the challenge to those teaching in the vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia. For the past ten years the sector has undergone continuous reformation to enable it to undertake its growing responsibilities. A competitive training market has opened up. Training packages have been implemented to give both an industry and a national emphasis to training. Training has moved into workplaces, and uses new technologies and flexible approaches to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technical and further education (TAFE), as the largest component of the VET system in Australia, has been greatly affected by these developments.

However, yet another change has been slowly incubating, and has already started its comprehensive influence-demographic change. Natural population growth is slowing and the proportion of mature age people is increasing. TAFE institutes already have an older teaching workforce than the Australian workforce overall. They face the prospect of losing a highly experienced section of the teaching workforce over the next three to five years. This will be exacerbated by difficulty in obtaining skilled replacements. Forecasts are that this new demography could result in the erosion of critical organisational knowledge within TAFE institutes, as in other organisations and industries. For TAFE, this could threaten training capacity and credibility, and leave TAFE institutes struggling to meet their increasingly important obligations to provide training to the broader Australian workforce.

To find out how TAFE institutes are responding to this new and pervasive challenge, this research sought to investigate how TAFE institutes are sustaining their skill bases. Firstly, it aimed to examine existing strategies that TAFE institutes have in place to maintain the currency of vocational competency of their teaching staff. Secondly, it investigated the strategies being used to transfer organisational knowledge and skills from those with extensive expertise and long-term experience teaching in TAFE institutes to those teachers with relatively limited experience.

The study was confined to the TAFE component of the VET sector, and was designed to take into account the complexity within this sector that is evident in the differences between TAFE institutes, and between state-based systems.

A mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods was used. Information was gathered from a literature review, a search of Australian and overseas websites, and an analysis of organisation documents (see appendix A of the support document available at ). The study included in-depth interviews of 61 chief executive officers, human resource managers and senior educational managers in 16 TAFE institutes in seven states and territories (see appendices F and G of the support document). These were supplemented with a paper-based questionnaire of 52 middle managers responsible for day-to-day management of teaching areas (see appendices H and I of the support document).

The findings of the research confirmed the complexity and diversity of the TAFE teaching workforce, both in the range of duties that were described as teaching, and the wide range of types of employment, and balances between full-time and other job configurations.

This complex research field made it difficult to generalise about issues concerning the skill base in TAFE. However, one finding that emerged was that TAFE managers recognised knowledge loss in many forms. They acknowledged that this ultimately affects efficiency and achievement, whether the loss is of teaching experience, qualifications, course development knowledge, VET know-how, organisational knowledge, or industry connections and good-will. Against this understanding of the possible negatives of loss, an understanding of its positives also emerged. There was appreciation of the opportunity to remove barriers to change and to shape training to match new demands.

Another finding that emerged from the research was the recognition of the difficulty of managing this loss-whether or not it was seen as a positive or a negative. Whatever approaches were used to manage loss, these could be negated by factors beyond the control of institutes, such as superannuation or health. And there was little consistency in approach to management of the skill base, either within institutes or between institutes.

Difficulties in managing the challenge and reality of knowledge loss lay partly in the variety of TAFE managers' interpretations of what constituted the skill base. These interpretations extended beyond the view of 'relevant vocational competency' as defined by the Australian Quality Training Framework (AQTF). The skill base was seen to include industry skills and links (and currency of these skills), and an understanding of current workplace culture. Teaching skills (and currency of these skills in a training package and workplace training environment), and technological confidence were also possible inclusions in the skill base. This range of views of what the skill base could be was accompanied by a range of options to sustain and develop it.

This research found that TAFE institutes used a range of recruitment and training options to maintain their skill bases. One simple option was the recruitment of teachers with recent industry experience. In the light of forecast difficulties in attracting skilled teaching staff, other options were seen to be needed, such as retaining mature workers beyond their traditional retirement age. Other options included training or re-training: sometimes within industry partnerships, sometimes professional development aided by performance management within institutes and sometimes informally. The research found that significant impediments to adopting these options were primarily the lack of resources-both time and money-as well as impedients from staff arising from lack of confidence, fear, resistance to change and lack of motivation.

An alternative to human resource and professional development options lay in retaining the knowledge-if not the worker-through knowledge transfer or sharing. There was a general recognition that policies were needed, and were indeed being developed to support various knowledge transfer practices. However, little was being done to define what critical knowledge needed to be retained or shared, and institute activities were reported as being often informal or simply promotional. Despite the recognition that knowledge transfer could produce gains in efficiency, service and professional quality, significant impediments were noted- overwhelmingly, lack of time and work overload.

The research found that TAFE institutes operated as educational businesses which do recognise the importance of a major business asset-their intellectual capital. This capital is fostered by national project initiatives within the sector, such as Reframing the Future, LearnScope and Flexible Learning Leaders. These projects do much to encourage teaching staff to actively participate in their own knowledge renewal. However, TAFE institutes demonstrate little interest-and use-of models of knowledge maintenance and knowledge transfer from businesses outside the sector. Non-educational models are often unknown, or even seen to be irrelevant to educational businesses.

However, this study found considerable evidence from outside VET, predominantly from the world of business, of means used to sustain organisations' skill bases-all of which had some relevance and potential application to TAFE institutes in Australia. Insights came from professions with mandatory requirements to maintain continuing competency in their professional area. Competencies were maintained through specific training programs, professional reading, examination and re-examination, devoting certain hours per year to professional development and/or written evidence of continuing competency.

A selection of approaches to knowledge renewal was gathered from informants in the study, the literature, and a broad scan of business and knowledge transfer-related websites. They included mentoring schemes, yellow pages directories, storytelling, and systematic knowledge transfer systems. Examples of integrated knowledge transfer models that have some relevance to TAFE institutes included in this study are the Tennessee Valley Authority, United States; the National Health Service, United Kingdom; the Generic Learning and Teaching Centre, United Kingdom; Australia Post and Transport Canada.

In summary, this research found that TAFE managers do recognise that the imperatives in maintaining their institute skill bases in the immediate future lie in educational renewal, workforce management, and flexibility in a variety of contexts.

However, there is still a need for these managers to develop policies and practices which build a knowledge culture. These need to be based on sound research, cyclical processes and resourcing. They also need to draw on models of integrated, whole-of-organisation practices. And they need to find resources and incentives to support innovative workforce planning and professional development which will assist them to counter knowledge loss, and to sustain the organisational capacity of their institutes. Such measures, when supported by policy-makers and funding bodies, will enable TAFE institutes to more effectively meet the evolving training demands generated by the knowledge economy.


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