End to VET as 'poorer cousin' key to reskill workforce

A bias towards university education over vocational training must end if Australia is to fill its skills gaps, a federal minister says.

Skills and Training Minister Brendan O'Connor on Monday took aim at the presumption TAFE and other vocational training settings were a lesser option for post-school education.

"Nine out of every 10 future jobs requires some tertiary education training, but half of that comes from the VET (vocational education and training) sector," he told the Australian Financial Review's Workforce Summit.

"Supplying skills to our labour market requires elevating the quality and investing more in the VET sector because there has been this bias towards university and the VET sector has been seen as a poorer cousin."

Skills and Training Minister Brendan O'Connor (file image)
Brendan O'Connor says the societal bias towards university education needs rethinking.

Mr O'Connor expressed surprise at how many apprentices and other workers had been corralled into university because of good year-12 marks.

"But they found their way ultimately to a TAFE, back to what they want to do," he said.

"I have to say it's been quite remarkable."

Calling time on the university bias has been backed by Masters Builders Australia, which in September urged for investment in skills and training, better integration of tertiary education and the development of higher and bachelor-equivalent apprenticeships.

VET sector enrolments have risen 11 per cent in five years, to 4.5 million students in 2022.

Meanwhile, university numbers have stagnated and commonwealth-supported places have fallen to 2013 levels.

With more than 1.2 million people forecast to be in tech-related jobs by 2030, too many courses and qualifications were out of date and quicker changes were needed to meet the shifting demand for modern skills, Mr O'Connor said.

The Sydney Institute of TAFE campus (file image)
VET sector enrolments have ballooned in recent years.

The post-school education system was working well but it remained somewhat disconnected from the employment sector, Jobs and Skills Australia acting commissioner David Turvey said.

"One of the key challenges is to make sure that what people are learning ... reflects what employees do on the ground," he told the summit.

"That's both technical skills and soft skills."

Retraining would need to be an important focus for policymakers to help workers whose jobs are upended by artificial intelligence, Productivity Commission chair Danielle Wood said.

But she expects AI to bring net job creation, consistent with other technological changes.

"We're pretty optimistic about the overall impacts on productivity and are less concerned about some of the negative workforce fallout," she said.

A chatbot to help the public digest the commission's mammoth, complex reports was among the potential uses of AI at the commission, she said.

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