WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF GAINING QUALIFICATIONS THROUGH WORK? Erica Smith & Andy Smith, University of Ballarat, Australia Abstract An important plank in lifelong learning policy in both the UK and Australia has been the opportunity for workers to gain qualifications through work. In Australia this opportunity has often been provided through the traineeship system which is a form of ‘modern apprenticeship’ that has now been in place for twenty years. Two national Australian research projects on the delivery of qualifications through work have been undertaken over a five-year period by the authors and colleagues.
Both projects involved research with workers, managers, training providers, industry bodies, and relevant officials at State and national level. The 2003 project surveyed 400 companies that provided qualification-based training at work and also included twelve enterprise case studies. The 2008 project involved six indepth industry case studies, each of which involved interviews with relevant senior stakeholders and two enterprise case studies, as well as in-depth interviews with senior policy officials, employer peak bodies and trade unions.
The studies showed that many advantages accrue to workers as well as to employers from the delivery of qualifications through work. However there are also some disadvantages and problematic areas for workers, some of which may become more apparent as the global financial crisis affects employment. In the discussion, some parallels are drawn between the Australian and the UK approach to delivering qualifications to lower-level workers through work. Introduction.
This paper uses data from two national research projects in Australia to discuss the pros and cons of gaining qualifications through work. The paper is confined to qualifications delivered by the vocational education and training (VET). As Australia enters its third decade of ‘training reform’ (Smith & Keating, 2003), gaining qualifications through work has expanded from being primarily the province of male trade apprentices to being a commonplace activity for hundreds of thousands of workers through traineeships and through other workplace-based programs.
Traineeships are a form of apprenticeship that is shorter than the traditional apprenticeship (usually 1-2 years as opposed to 3-4 years), and often in newer or service industries. For example retail is the most commonly delivered traineeship area. They were introduced as a result of the Kirby report (Kirby, 1985) and were intended originally to provide apprenticeship type arrangements for a broader range of workers, including women, and to ameliorate youth unemployment. Since the 1980s, apprenticeships and traineeships alike have been opened up to adults and to part-time workers.
While there are many advantages that accrue to workers, companies and the nation from these new developments there are also some problematic areas. Many arguments have been advanced against Australian traineeships (eg Snell & Hart, 2008) and these arguments are generally rooted in the male trade interest groups. The arguments have been buttressed by many examples of poor practice whereby some training providers during the 1990s, through design or ignorance, delivered poor quality training and were seen to abuse the availability of government funding (eg Schofield, 2000).
This paper does not address this issue as it has been well-rehearsed in the literature and is often transparently traceable to male trade interest groups wishing to retain government funding for training to their own constituencies rather than spreading it across the broader economy and to a greater variety of workers. The paper focuses rather upon more general pros and cons associated with delivery of qualifications through work. Background And Literature Review.
Three policy developments have facilitated the delivery of VET qualifications through work. While this section focuses on Australia there are many parallel developments in the UK and in other countries. The three factors are: the opening of the training market, the introduction of Training Packages (the framework for organising, presenting and delivering national competency standards), and the availability of government funding for qualifications delivered in workplaces. These developments are briefly described in the following paragraphs.
An opening-up of the nationally recognised Vocational Education and Training (VET) training system in Australia has seen movement from a near monopoly by the Technical and Further Education system (TAFE), the public provider, to one in which over 4,000 Registered Training Organisations (RTOs), including just over 100 TAFE Institutes existed in 2001 (Brennan & Smith, 2002) and nearly 8000 1 in 2008. Non-TAFE providers are able to access government funding and offer national qualifications; although there were private providers previously they were not able to do either of these things.
The growth of non-TAFE RTOs has been assisted particularly by what are known as ‘User Choice’ policies in the funding arrangements for the large apprentice and trainee training market. Around 400,000 Australians (from a workforce of 12 million people) are engaged in apprenticeships and traineeships at any one time (NCVER, 2007) of whom a proportion are newly-recruited workers including school-leavers, but of whom a large number are what are known as ‘existing workers’, that have been offered the opportunity to gain a qualification through training, often on-the-job.
The development of national competency standards, which are available for use for many different purposes, has been one way in which Australian governments has provided support for training in companies and institutions. Similar developments have occurred elsewhere. The English National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system (Fletcher, 1991) was introduced in 1991; NVQS were presented as a means of improving profitability and enhancing economic performance (NCVQ, 1990, as reported in Matlay, 1999).
In Australia, national Training Packages, similar (although by no means identical) in nature, but not introduced until 1997 (Smith & Keating, 2003), provide a national framework for curriculum for all providers delivering nationally recognised training. Training Packages consist of national industry competency standards (known as units of competency) gathered into qualifications at various levels, together with assessment guidelines and, usually, a variety of support materials.
If learners do not require complete qualifications, nationally recognised Statements of Attainment may be issued for one or more units of competency. There are now around 80 Australian Training Packages, many covering industry areas which did not have access to nationally recognised training previously, such as funerals, beauty, seafood and the defence industry. All Australian Training Packages can be viewed on the National Training Information System web site at www. ntis. gov. au.
Australian Training Packages have many similarities with the English NVQ system although there are also some significant differences. There has been considerable controversy about the educational efficacy of Training Packages (some of these debates are summarised in Smith, 2002) but a HighLevel Review of Training Packages (Schofield & McDonald, 2003), and a current review due to report mid-2009 (National Quality Council, 2009), both of which were underpinned by wide consultations, have shown widespread support for the general concept.
Financial incentives for the delivery of on-the-job qualifications fall into three main categories. Firstly, employment incentives are available for companies recruiting workers and placing them onto apprenticeships and traineeships. These are paid on recruitment, at mid-point, and on completion. While a major focus of these subsidies is on newly recruited workers, the incentives are also available for what are called ‘existing workers’ within certain parameters. Secondly, funding is available for the ‘training’ part of apprenticeships and traineeships.
In most cases this is provided without question once an apprentice or trainee has been contracted by a company, but there are some restrictions around funding in some States and Territories. This funding flows to the RTO selected by the employer (supposedly in conjunction with the trainee or apprenticeship) for the provision of off-the-job training. It is known as ‘user choice’ funding (Smith & Keating, 2003). Apprentices and trainees may attend training on day or block release, or the training may be primarily on-the-job with support and visits from the RTO.
In some State and Territories (which have the responsibility of monitoring the quality of VET and of administering ‘user choice’ funds), RTOs are required to provide a certain number of hours of ‘real’ training – ie of off-the-job training. The third form of funding for on-the-job delivery is that provided by a variety of national and State/Territory funding schemes which vary from year to year according to industry need and government policies. These may include targeted funding for skill shortage areas or for equity groups.
A longstanding program in this category, for example, is WELL – workplace English language and Literacy – which is now tied closely to the delivery of programs that do not focus solely on language and literacy but embeds their development through the delivery of nationally recognised qualifications or units of competency. Around 200,000 Australians commence traineeships each year and the traineeship program constitutes the main way in which qualifications are delivered through work; arguments have been proposed through industry peak 1.
The 2008 figures were provided directly by staff at the National Training Information Service, are not validated, and include inactive RTOs. bodies such as the Australian Industry Group that funded on-the-job training should be ‘decoupled’ from, traineeship arrangements but as yet these argument have not gained sufficient traction to be put onto the policy agenda. It is clear that these three developments have combined – as they were intended – to encourage the delivery of qualifications on the job to large cohorts of workers.
The presence of large numbers of RTOs has encouraged keen – perhaps over-aggressive – marketing of qualification-base delivery in order for RTOs to access user choice or other funding. With the focus on standards of performance, Training Packages are well suited to delivery in enterprises; in fact it has been argued that they are better suited to such delivery than to delivery in educational institutions (Boorman, 2001). The Research Method This paper uses findings from two large national Australian research studies for which the fieldwork was undertaken in late 2003 and 2007- 2008 respectively.
For the first project – Study 1 – (Smith, Pickersgill, Smith & Rushbrook, 2005) the research method was as follows: Three exploratory focus groups of employers and other industry stakeholders to ensure that major issues were covered; Case studies in twelve enterprises, in four States and Territories. Four industry areas were covered: hospitality, manufacturing/process manufacturing, call centres and arts/media, and were selected to represent diverse industry sectors and training cultures. Case study sites were chosen in conjunction with skills councils and the reference group.
In each industry area, three enterprises were visited: one that was an enterprise RTO (registered as a training provider in its own right), one that offered nationally-recognised training through RTO(s), and one that offered none or virtually no nationally-recognised training. Interviews were carried out with senior line managers, human resource managers, departmental managers, training staff, workers at different levels with the organisations, and union representatives.
A survey of all 195 enterprise RTOs (based on the National Training Information Service listing) and a sample of 400 medium-to-large companies (from the commercially-available Dun & Bradstreet database) that were not enterprise RTOs but that employed human resource managers and therefore might be expected to have some commitment to training. Just over a quarter of enterprise RTOs (51 or 26. 2%) responded together with 73 other companies, providing roughly comparable numbers for analysis. Telephone interviews with State Training Authority staff in several States and Territories, to clarify ‘user choice’ and other funding arrangements.
The project was undertaken to scope the provision of nationally-recognised training (ie qualificationbased training) in enterprises. Previous research in this area had generally been descriptive and based in individual industry areas. The study was the first to describe the phenomenon at a national level. It developed models of adoption of qualification-based training by enterprises. The second project – Study 2 – (Smith, Comyn, Brennan Kemmis & Smith, forthcoming), consisted of comprehensive case studies of traineeships in six areas: cleaning, child care, construction, retail, finance & insurance and meat processing.
Within each case study, site visits were made to two company examples, and additional interviews were carried out at national and industry level. As well, interviews were carried out, at a more general level, with thirteen high-level stakeholders – senior officials in government, employer and employee peak bodies, and other major players in the traineeship system. This project was undertaken because the controversy surrounding ‘abuse’ of the system, discussed in the Introduction to this paper, had stifled other research in the area.
The aim of the research was to identify features of high quality traineeships with the ultimate aim of improving practice to a uniformly higher level. The case studies were carried out during 2007-8 and were completed before the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. Findings And Discussion This section of the paper discusses the pros and cons of gaining VET qualifications through work. The pros The availability of qualifications through work means that many people that were previously without qualifications are now able to gain them.
Often, but by no mean always, these workers have had unsatisfactory experiences at school and tend to lack self-confidence and self-efficacy in their abilities to master ‘study’. As the training does not have much focus on classroom delivery and often a relatively low emphasis on written materials success is relatively easily achieved. The following quote is taken from a training manager in a large cleaning company in Study 2. Her workers were undertaking a Certificate III qualification in Asset Maintenance (Cleaning).
a lot of these traineeships are you know, targeting a blue collar audience… like someone who’s been a cleaner, may have been a cleaner for 5, 10 years, but there’s been no formal recognition of what they’ve done, and … they see themselves as just a cleaner and the fact that the traineeship is also competency based and can recognise skills that they already have, without them needing to attend… a traditional classroom environment and having it on the job, so the combination of on the job and that recognition that what they’re doing actually does have some value somewhere in an educational framework, has made them feel, I think, just a lot more proud about what they do, in themselves, with their self esteem.
There is an absolute recognition among employers that such programs benefit their companies as well as their workers. Study 1 discussed in some detail the ways in which training staff needed, and were able, to ‘sell’ qualification-based training to their senior managers by emphasising the part which such training played in attracting and motivating staff, as well as providing evidence of attention to quality as required by industry regulatory bodies.
This long explanation, from a Study 2 employer of trainees in an abattoir, shows how the interests of workers and employers dovetail. It would be five years ago I suppose, the abattoir was really going through a growth spurt, and one of the biggest dangers they had was the lack of meat inspectors.
So what they did was they started with a group of people doing Certificate II in Abattoirs and some of them went through and did Certificate III, and they identified the group that they wanted to go on and become their meat inspectors. The group went through and did the meat inspector course of study and it is quite a difficult and long-term commitment.
A few of these were women who started, and they were cleaners. They were cleaning up the bloody kill floors, and you know, pretty average work, really average work, and they went right through the system to become meat inspectors. Which, for them, they were women who were probably I don’t know, in their 40’s and had probably, I’d say had you know, pretty basic employment all of their working lives.
And you know, it took them through into an occupation and a pay scale that they probably couldn’t have ever dreamed of. They were incredibly proud of themselves. And extremely committed. The employers have built enormous stores of goodwill because of what they’ve done for those people. And those people of course, because they’d been workers all their lives, they know how to work.
So that also makes for a pretty good workforce, and that’s why, I think, this abattoir is pretty successful, you know. They really don’t have a lot of turnover but they actually have gone through a pretty big growth spurt over the last 5 years, and they have found it difficult to attract the required numbers of staff. This was one way of ‘growing their own’ and holding on to them.
When it came to offering the training for the group of employees who were to become meat inspectors, we had meat leadership on our scope (of registration), but we decided against delivering it because we didn’t think we were actually the best organisation to do it at that level. So we actually bought in OTEN (a distance education TAFE provider), and they did that, and they qualified a group of about 8 people there as meat inspectors. So if you like, from a career pathway point of view, they started on pretty average wages with their Certificate II in abattoir through to meat inspectors, which would earn them $100,000 a year. Of course, this initiative was driven by necessity.
The abattoir needed to have these people, because without meat inspectors, of course, they can’t move any product. This is probably the best example of an abattoir’s approach to training and commitment to training. It is a necessity to meet compliance issues around AQIS requirements and if they’re doing the training properly, if the motivation is that they have to do it to meet quality standards or legislation then that’s still a good reason to do and do it well. It is a real advantage to target and support willing staff in training.
A lot of the people we have that do these courses left school because it was a bad experience. And if you put them back into an environment that they equate with ‘back to school’ they are very resistant. Whereas if they just go to work, and they’re shown how to do something, it’s not even called training to them, it’s just that I’m showing you how to do something and they work, and they get good at it and they get paid, and they’re really happy.
And then of course, the assessment process is quite informal. There’s no sitting tests, or things that often take them again back to their unhappy school days. And they achieve a qualification, and they do actually value it. And you know, there are some people there that don’t really care too much, because for them it’s about working and getting paid.
But there are a lot of people there that never achieve anything academically, but because they didn’t, doesn’t mean they’re stupid people. It’s just that that type of learning didn’t do it for them, whereas on the job learning has obviously been successful for them.
They’ve had a good experience and they’ve got their qualification and they’re pretty proud of that. While the above discussion shows that providing qualifications through work makes workers feel good and companies more confident in presenting themselves as ‘employers of choice’, what are the more concrete advantages for workers? A paper produced from Study 1 data (Smith, 2006) indicated that women in particular benefited from qualifications-based training.
The paper showed how the new phenomena had removed many of the barriers to gaining qualifications in VET that had previously been identified (Butler & Ferrier, 2000).
These barriers included practical issues such as the need to travel to a college-based location, often after-hours, as well as underlying issues such as the clack of respect for work typically undertaken by women and the lack of female role models. More generally the paper showed that data from Study 1 indicated that lower-status workers received more training generally as well as qualification-based training in companies that had adopted qualifications-based training. These data begin to answer the question famously posed by Rainbird (2007) ‘Can training remove the sticky glue from the floor of low pay for workers?
’ They are consistent with UK studies such as that undertaken of NVQ level 2 qualifications by Hillage & Mitchell (2003). A further advantage of qualifications-based training is that undertaking an initial qualification enables people to progress to higher level qualifications.
This facility is often used to advocate for extensive use of Recognition of Prior Learning processes. A lower level qualification may be awarded primarily on RPL and hence may be seen as being of little added value either to the company or to the worker apart from the ‘feel good’ factor. But the real benefit of RPL into lower-level qualifications is the access to higher-level qualifications. The abattoirs example above is one example of such a pathway.
There was some evidence that the availability of qualifications might improve working within an industry, in other words beginning to provide the ‘decent work’ that is valorised by industrial relations scholars. The stakeholders in the cleaning industry in Study 2 were united in their hope and belief that training would lift working conditions, improve safety, and address the low status of cleaning as an occupation.
The national union representative was hopefuls that by the simple fact of multi-skilling workers, the current fragmentation of work in the industry could be ameliorated and proper full-time jobs created. The industry was at the time of the study fragmented into ‘men’s and ‘women’s’ jobs but the training covered both areas of work and the case study findings suggested that most tasks could be safely undertaken by either gender.
A simple but often overlooked advantage for workers of gaining qualifications through work is that they do not have to pay for their training. In a few cases where the training involves attendance at an RTO on a regular basis, trainees are asked by the RTO to pay a contribution towards their training (this has typically been a notional amount and was introduced to improve buy-in to the processes) but generally it is completely free. The cons The disadvantages of gaining qualifications through work fall into two main categories. The first is the integrity of the qualification, including its transferability, and the second is the question of access to the training.
Integrity of qualifications In Study 1, over-contextualisation of qualifications sometimes seemed to occur and was a particular where training was predominantly on-the-job with little classroom component. The issue at stake is whether workers who gain in-house qualifications gain skills and knowledge that are transferable to other contexts, and, in a slightly different point, gain sufficient understanding of other ways of operating (Smith & Keating, 2003: 168; Misko, Patterson & Markotic, 2001: 166-171). Study 1 employers and training staff often talked proudly about the closeness of fit of the training to the enterprise. For example, a national call centre training manager in Study 1 described how the delivery of training and assessment of workers was embedded within normal performance management processes.
Training Packages with their emphasis upon outcomes rather than curriculum lend themselves well to workplace delivery, although they are intended to provide for broader understandings and knowledge. We sensed in Study 2 that there was a greater sophistication among companies in their understanding of such issues and that companies generally showed that they wished their workers to achieve a broader viewpoint and to learn different ways of dong things. Those employers that took a national view, such as those in the meat processing industry, seemed particularly conscious that their traineeship programs were developing a national skills pool and needed to extend beyond training for the current workplace.
In terms of benefit to workers, a broader qualification is referrable because skills and knowledge learned in one place are more readily transferable to a new company either within or external to the original industry. A boarder training approach is also more acceptable to workers particularly those who are more highly educated. For example workers interviewed in the Study 1 call centre were already well-educated with several possessing degrees.
They did not like the strong workplace-specific focus of their Certificate III qualification and hence did not value it. They said they would have preferred a greater amount of ‘real training’. They did not object to studying at Certificate III level but did object to poor-quality training that was embedded so far within their work that it was not visible.
In Study 2 a cleaning supervisor was disappointed with the low standard of assessment in the program as delivered by the training provider which he attended. He said ‘anyone could pass it’, and would have preferred a much more rigorous assessment.
Linked to these ‘complaints’ was a general feeling among all involved at the company level in Study 2 companies that the over-use of RPL detracted from the benefit of qualifications. Reasons for this view varied from that put forward by the traineeship manager from a large company who said that she could not trust the quality of learning gained through any other company, to workers who really wanted to learn new things and did not want to miss out on learning opportunities through being given RPL.
More generally the integrity of workplace-based qualifications could be compromised where an RTO lacked the capability to deliver training to a high standard. In Study 2 several companies talked of the difficulty they experienced in finding an RTO that provided high quality learning materials and paid an appropriate amount of attention to their trainees.
Some employers in Study 1 and Study 2 mentioned the large amount of time that needed to be devoted to monitoring RTOs’ performance. Some complaints were directed specifically at RTOs who employed ‘generalist’ staff that were not conversant with the industry but relied upon working in partnership with the companies who were expected to provide on-the-job training and carry out the bulk of the assessment.
While these cases were by no means in the majority, the system of workplace delivery removes training and assessment from the gaze of managers of educational institutions and makes quality control more difficult. Integrity can also be compromised by employers who like the idea of having qualified staff but lack the motivation or skills to work effectively with the delivering RTO.
The marketisation of VET in Australia, while not necessarily deleterious overall, encourages aggressive and bottom-line-focused marketing of qualifications to companies. In examples of such marketing in Study 1 the provision of qualifications at different levels was carefully costed for the companies showing cross-subsidisation of some qualifications by others which attracted greater amounts of training.
In Study 2 an RTO trainer in the cleaning industry mentioned several cases where employees had been enrolled on traineeships and then withdrawn – even literally pulled out of the class- when it became clear that hope-for funding was not available. However in other cases, employers persisted with the training in the absence of funding.
Therefore the experience of the trainee is highly dependent upon the quality of the employer’s input and the employers’ skilful use of the extra skills and knowledge gained by the trainees. . As a cleaning trainer in study 2 said The traineeship is great, so they’re going to get a bit more confidence, but if they’re not able to put all that into practice at work… in some of the evaluation forms I’ve even seen things (written) such as: ‘What’s the use? ’ ‘Why did we bother? We’ve been back to work now for four months and are not allowed to do any of this.
’ The integrity of the qualification thus depended upon the availability of a variety of workplace tasks that would provide opportunities for practising all the skills learned. While some companies were mindful of this requirement and rotated trainees to allow for broader learning, others did not show much interest – or were perhaps unaware of the need. While many issues like these could be attributed to a lack of interest by employers in training and a desire only to access available funding, it is just as likely that the employers did not really understand what they needed to do, or lacked the skills or knowledge to play their full part in the process.
This is hardly surprising considering that the qualifications in many of these industries and occupations were still in their infancy. Access to qualifications through work Assuming that the integrity of qualifications can be improved, making qualifications available through work is a great advantage to many lower-paid and lower-status workers in times of full employment. Both Study 1 and Study 2 were carried out in the tight labour market which characterised most of the first decade of the twenty-first century in Australia as in many other countries. Some of the industries such as meat processing, cleaning and call centres, suffered to a very great extent from an ability to attract workers and particularly workers of high quality.
Workers were attracted to the idea of gaining qualifications so long as the prospect did not seem too threatening. However the following difficulties could be identified. As unemployment rises due to the Global Financial Crisis, qualifications that are primarily available through work become unavailable to the unemployed. Delivery patterns that involve a close web of mutual contributions from RTOs and from employers may be difficult to extract and to adapt to institutional-base delivery. This is especially where the traineeship apparatus has underpinned training for the industry (eg call centres, meat processing) so that ‘simulated’ workplaces have never been developed within RTOs.
Workplaces that are struggling with survival in a difficult economic climate are unlikely to welcome requests from RTOs to access their facilities for delivery of training, and RTOs are unlikely to have the funds to develop their own premises. Even in the return to full employment that we hope may occur in the not too distant future, access to qualifications is still patchy.
Access to qualifications through work is only available through employers that engage with the system and typically is greater in a large workplace than a small one, as Study 1 showed. Study 1 also showed that employers that engage are likely to be better employers in terms of human resource and training practices more generally and therefore there is a double disadvantage to those not working for such employers.
The lack of geographical proximity to a good RTO acts as a barrier to prevent access by workers to qualifications through work in the same way as it prevents access individually; while employers do utilise RTOs for delivery in non-traditional modes, Study 2 showed that the quality of training is likely to be lower where RTOs are not close by. A more subtle point about access surfaced in Study 2. For individuals, since traineeships were often attached to a job which they would do anyway, there seemed to be little evidence of a conscious decision to undertake the qualification. This is in stark contrast to the much longer-established apprentice.