Why we need more professionals than plumbers

Stone the crows! The backlash against ever-more undergraduates has begun. Last week, Business Council of Australia chief Catherine Livingstone announced there were too many young people at university who would be better off in vocational education.[i] Fair enough, except VOC.ED isn’t exactly empty. There are around two million people in the vocational education and training system, twice the number at university.[ii] The problem is the public sector vocational education has appalling attrition rates, with two thirds of starters not completing on 2012 figures.[iii]


The Crows wondered when criticism would start of the bipartisan policy of Canberra funding a place in a university for every Australian. I figured it would be when declines in graduate employment and income became more noticeable, as is occurring in the US.[iv]


But Ms Livingstone got in early – running an old argument underpinned for generations that we have too many Arts graduates and not enough plumbers.


However, universities long stopped preparing students for nothing in particular. Health, plus management and commerce, account for 40 per cent plus of all enrolments, with above average growth last year.[v] And demand for task based training, as opposed to the ability to adapt and innovate to changing economic needs, will not grow as fast as the call for educated workers.


According to the Australian Workplaces Productivity Agency, demand for postgraduate qualifications will increase between 3.9 per cent and 4.9 per cent per annum in its three growth scenarios. Demand growth for undergraduate degrees will be between 3.3 per cent and 4.1 per cent pa while the call for higher level TAFE qualifications will be between 3.3 per cent and 3.7 per cent. [vi]


The future will require creativity not competencies, the ability to imagine new jobs rather than follow instructions for existing ones, however exalted.  As the Pew Research Centre argues:


Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well. Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.[vii]


In any case, there are plenty of people in VOC.ED – they just do not complete their courses. There are many reasons why and young people not knowing what they want to do is a big one. Overall, the system is a mess. It is burdened with bureaucracy and lacks a universal sense of purpose across the commonwealth.


The National Centre for Vocational Education and Research publishes a guide to acronyms in the system, – it is 120 pages long.[viii] Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane recently joined the list of ministers bemused by the system, saying in a 25 June speech:


In recent years the skills and training system has become complex and bogged down in red tape. Its excessive complexity and duplication has created a disincentive for participation for employers and students, which means Australia is not taking full advantage of opportunities to build its most productive workforce … Students, parents and employers tell me they can’t always get the information to make the right decisions about the training they need.[ix]


This is all very bad indeed – not everybody has the academic ability for higher education but all young Australians need skills that will keep them in front of AI.  


But what happens to people who don’t acquire them? It’s a rhetorical Crows question – did you see the youth unemployment numbers last week? Some 30 per cent of 15-19 year olds in the full-time labour market were of out of work.[x] Which is where they will stay without post school qualifications.


One answer is to spend up on support programs to keep kids in education – schemes to increase university participation to 20 per cent by people from the lowest socio-economic quintile appear to be working.[xi]  


Good, but not good enough. Creating a culture that values education and builds self-belief in students is essential. A recent study by Chris Ryan and Jacqueline Homel shows that student aspirations can shape achievement across class backgrounds. [xii]


But aspirations aren’t inculcated at the end of secondary education; they have be at the very start of schooling and from families.[xiii]


Channelling disengaged kids into vocational education and hoping for the best is not the answer. We need to ensure the community belief in university education extends to training so that kids stick to it and, hopefully, move on from certificates to diplomas and degrees. And to help the people who will be looking for work as the AI revolution really kicks in we need to start now.


Speeches drafted, strategies created, cases made





[i]Heath Gilmore and Matthew Knott, “Business head calls for fewer uni students,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 4

[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian social trends: education differences between men and women, September 26 2012 @ http://goo.gl/Ih4amS recovered on August 9

[iii] Stephen Matchett, “Awful attrition,” Campus Morning Mail August 8, http://goo.gl/FTUia2 recovered on August 9

[iv] Jaison R Abel and Richard Deitz, “Do the benefits of college still outweigh the costs?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York: current issues,” 20, 3 2014 @ http://goo.gl/pqfYAi recovered on August 9, Bart Hobijin and Leila Bengali, “The wage growth gap for recent college grads,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Economic Letter, 2014-22, July 21 @ http://goo.gl/i02kYh recovered on August 9

[v] Department of Education, “Selected higher education statistics: 2013 student data,” @ http://goo.gl/7K7xTd recovered on August 9

[vi] Australian Workplace Productivity Agency, Future focus: 2013 national workforce development strategy, March 2013 @ http://goo.gl/u7oUSD recovered on August 9

[vii] Pew Research Centre, “Digital life in 2025: AI, robotics and the future of jobs,” August 6 @ http://goo.gl/Jx7TlV recovered on August 9

[viii] National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Glossary of VET, September 2013 @ http://goo.gl/0tPnqw recovered on August 9

[ix] Campus Morning Mail, July 26 @ http://goo.gl/WPPNB6 recovered on August 9

[x] Michael Janda, “Unemployment surges to 12-year high,” ABC News, August 7 @ http://goo.gl/IVI5hA recovered on August 9

[xi]Andrew Trounson, Low SES students make inroads, The Australian, March 26

[xii] Chris Ryan and Jacqueline Homel, Educational outcomes: the impact of aspirations and the role of student background characteristics, NCVER March 24 @ http://goo.gl/cgYJrC recovered on August 9

[xiii] NCVER, “Students’ engagement with their school is set by the time they reach the age of 15,” Insight 52, July 31 @ http://goo.gl/5FZoFw recovered on August 9