New research investigates whether vocational training focuses on the skills employers value most.
A new ACER study investigates what employers in the early childhood and aged care sectors are really looking for when hiring entry level personnel, and the extent to which vocational training programs help learners develop and demonstrate these skills.
Led by ACER Senior Research Fellow Kate Perkins for the South Australian Department of State Development, the study, called What do employers really want? Helping vocational learners crack the code, found that employers in both sectors are looking to recruit people who demonstrate that they can connect and work with others. 'Employers place far greater emphasis on these skills than on the technical skills and knowledge about specific tasks, regulations and protocols emphasised in the relevant vocational qualifications,' Ms Perkins said.
According to Ms Perkins, one employer's comment captures the general feeling in these sectors: ‘We can teach people what they need to know (about tasks, industry regulations and protocols) in a week.’
‘Early childhood educators operate in small teams, and the centre directors we spoke to placed a significant emphasis on learners’ ability to "fit in" with different teams throughout their work placement,’ Ms Perkins said. ‘Before they offered someone a contract, the directors got feedback, not only from team leaders, but from other co-workers.
'The learners we worked with had no idea that it was just as important to make an effort to build relationships with other educators as to interact effectively with the children. Some of them needed strategies to help them in this, but there was nothing in the formal qualification that looked explicitly at interpersonal skills involving other adults.’
The research found that aged care employers recruiting entry level personal care workers also placed the highest priority on connecting and working with others, particularly clients and their families, but, compared to early childhood, they set the bar much higher, needing people with highly developed interpersonal skills and empathy. However, the study also found that this level of sophistication was not reflected in the requirements of the qualification. Nor did training directly address the kinds of issues a personal care worker might need to manage when interacting with other co-workers, or with clients’ families.
The study found that, in programs designed to assist people into work, employers, vocational trainers and the learners themselves may have different ideas about the non-technical skills an individual will need to get a job.
‘The key to aligning employer, trainer and learner priorities and helping learners develop the skills may well lie in drilling down into the detail of what these skills look like in practice within a specific organisational and industry context,' Ms Perkins said.
The study used the Core Skills for Work developmental framework to do this.
‘For the first time, we have a tool that can help us pinpoint employer expectations with a high degree of precision. This makes it possible to help learners identify the strengths they already have, and think about how they can adapt and apply them in a new work context. It also helps trainers design targeted strategies to assist learners where they need it most.'
The study suggests a need to revisit the current qualifications to ensure that they reflect employer requirements and expectations in non-technical as well as technical areas. ‘Unless there is explicit reference to these “mission critical” skills as an integral part of the industry standards that are being assessed, trainers will continue to find it challenging to find space in their programs to help learners develop and demonstrate the skills that might actually be the ones that get them into the industry,' Ms Perkins said.
Given ongoing employer concerns about the work readiness of vocational graduates across many industries, the study raises questions about how well entry level qualifications more generally are currently designed to help learners develop and demonstrate the skills employers are actually looking for. ACER is currently undertaking two larger-scale projects to explore this further, one focusing across a range of industries in the care sector, and the other looking at mission critical employability skills in STEM-rich industries that recruit vocational graduates with engineering or IT qualifications. ■