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Do we need a skills-based system to thrive in our digital future?

The skills workers need are changing fast, and they are increasingly digital. Do we need to shift to a skills-based model to thrive in the future of education and work?


National Skills Week is an amazing time to celebrate the great stories coming out of Australia’s world-leading vocational education and training system. Despite change, students continue to engage in VET, learn, and gain valuable careers that will support their future lives.


There’s a problem though. Is VET helping to equip them with the digital skills they will need?


In 2020, 5.6 million Australians between the ages of 15 and 64 participated in nationally recognised VET, but only 65,000 signed up for ICT training. In the same year, there were only 18,964 completions and less than 2,500 completing training at Certificate IV level.


While there are other factors for tech employers than certificates alone, VET could be missing a growth opportunity. For example, The Technology Council of Australia argues we will need 1.2 million tech jobs by 2030 - or an additional 650,000 workers.


The opportunity is not just pure tech jobs. Digital or broader tech skills are becoming more widespread across most occupations, even traditional 'blue collar' professions. The Digital Skills Organisation says 90% of Australian workers will need to deploy digital skills in 5 years.


Should VET change so we can better celebrate digital skills during National Skills Week?


Taking the need for national digital skills head on


The DSO earlier this year proposed a new digital skills development model that could be utilised to broaden and deepen our nation’s pool of digital skills, whether it is at the basic level of digital literacy, or towards more technical levels, where digital mastery is required.


It proposes a big, hairy, audacious goal - a radical shift from a competency-based approach to a skills-based model. Rather than training a person to carry out formalised tasks aligned to existing job roles, it argues training should develop skills that are adaptable to future needs.


“Competency based training makes the system slower to respond to the pace of change driven by technology. Training packages are prescriptive and do not sufficiently reflect employers’ needs. They also limits the potential for learners to apply knowledge in a range of contexts.


“A skills-based approach to learning develops skills that are adaptable to future needs. It enables individual learners to achieve skills and capabilities that are transferable across different jobs, occupations and contexts. It is well suited to digital skills training."


Three pillars of the skills-based model


There's no doubt the adoption of a skills-based model rather than a competency-based model would require a huge shift in how the VET market operates on a number of levels, with all the associated change that would entail for many VET stakeholders, including providers. 


All the same, it's worth exploring the DSO's thinking, to explore the skills-based concept. 


One aspect of the model that was suggested was having three pillars. Digital skills pathways, digital skills standards, and digital Centres of Excellence. All three would contribute to developing digital skills faster and more usefully across education and industry.


Digital skills pathways


The DSO envisions digital skills pathways as a signposted journey that leads an individual or organisation to understand the skills needed for occupations. Ideally, the DSO says each pathway would be shaped by industry demand and described in a unifying language and taxonomy recognised by all, to help align employers, learners and training providers.


It would break skills down into categories. For example, critical core skills essential in the workplace - like critical thinking, communication and adaptability - would form the foundation of skills that are transferable across industries, jobs and roles.


On top of this, there would be skills pathways, or groups of skills aligned to generic roles, purposes or industries. These pathways would have a hierarchy of skills, consisting of three levels, from digital literacy, progressing up to digital fluency and finally digital professional. Aptitude testing could be conducted to assess level to understand potential and needs.


Digital skills standards


The model proposes a framework of employer-led standards that ensures consistency of training. The standards would combine the critical skills needed for specific digital functions, with the minimum skills level required. Progression would be supported by the pursuit of adaptable building blocks, in the form of standalone, micro or macro credentials.


A big shift proposed in this model is the move to standardised, independent assessment. The DSO proposes that an expert digital skills assessment panel, comprising assessment experts and employer representatives aligned with each digital skills pathway, could lead the assessment design process. It would be administered by Registered Training Organisations.


Digital Centres of Excellence


Lastly, the model says RTOs, working with the DSO and local employers, could collectively form digital centres of excellence to develop and share skills based best practice, training and assessment. The model would connect RTOs with local employers through co-designing the delivery of digital skills training.


“Given there are 4,000 RTOs and that only a small proportion deliver ICT training packages, the Digital Centres of Excellence will develop, cultivate, and disseminate best practice. Materials, teacher training, and business support can be developed and shared with other RTOs to help grow capability and capacity,” the DSO says.


Towards a skills-based future?


The DSO says that, should its model be embraced, then nationally accredited digital qualifications will become recognisable assets for graduates and employers, and these will be based on the skills standards and pathways put forward. The qualifications would provide clarity and confidence about the level and types of digital skills those qualifications represent.


“The power of skills-based, work-integrated approaches to learning, designed to meet those ongoing needs will transform the delivery of digital skills training in Australia. The model represents a major step towards shaping a national training system that is more responsive to the digital needs of the economy, industry, employers and learners.”


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