According to a submission from the Naval Shipbuilding College (NSC) to a Prime and Minister and Cabinet Department review into the vocational education and training (VET) sector, the issues facing the VET side of the STEM pipeline have some big issues to address.

The Naval Shipbuilding College (NSC) was established by the Australian Government to ensure an ongoing, sovereign workforce for the Australian shipbuilding industry and as such, it is required to identify the training and education requirements for this industry. The NSC was established in the wake of the $90 billion naval shipbuilding program and is managed by the Naval Shipbuilding Institute (NSI), a joint venture between Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Under a $62 million funding model, the NSI works with shipbuilders and supply chain industries to understand their workforce requirements throughout the different stages of construction and sustainment; then works with established training and education providers to modify programs of study, including vocational education and training qualifications, to ensure these programs align with the current and future needs of the naval shipbuilding industry.

The programs that have been modified to align with these needs and meet the ongoing standards required by the naval shipbuilding industry then undergo an endorsement process.

The NSC regularly receives feedback regarding the need to promote VET qualification pathways as being as important as higher education qualifications. This is also consistent with a number of government statements across jurisdictions. To meet current and future industry requirements, Australia needs to ensure the VET and higher education sectors are both high functioning and complementary, with learners completing both VET and higher education qualifications throughout their careers to support progression.

The importance of VET
The perception that VET is for learners who are less engaged in schooling must be addressed; technical trade skills are just as valuable (and needed) as university-based qualifications. Advanced manufacturing and trade occupations require high level numeracy and communication skills across all levels within organisations. Secondary school students, parents and influencers must be encouraged to consider VET pathways as an alternative to the focus on obtaining high Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATAR), which is seen at some secondary schools nationally.

There are currently a number of challenges for the VET sector and its stakeholders. One significant challenge is the negative perception of the sector as a whole, resulting from the breadth and complexity of the sector, perceptions of being the poorer cousin of higher education and media exposure of poor provider behaviours and quality concerns. Other key challenges include the lack of flexibility in funding and qualification structures.

The VET sector consists of thousands of qualifications and units of competency, multiple provider types, varying funding models and different delivery types such as apprenticeship and institutional learning. It is unlikely the majority of prospective learners, industry representatives and influencers are aware of the range of qualifications available through the VET sector, the career outcomes of these qualifications, have knowledge of the funding available across jurisdictions, the criteria associated with these funding processes and differences between enterprise and apprenticeship delivery.

It is difficult to educate all prospective VET users in every aspect of the sector and associated processes. However, the implementation of career pathway diagrams and fact sheets will at least give prospective learners and industry an understanding of the range of options available and steps that can be taken to meet career ambitions.

ADM understands that that NSC have been actively working with industry partners, most notably Naval Group and BAE Systems Australia, to nail down a taxonomy of skills needed for both the Future Submarine and Future Frigate in particular (see this month’s From the Source interview with Naval Group Australia CEO John Davis for more on this).

As this edition of ADM was going to press, the NSC announced that Flinders University is the first higher education institution in Australia to have been endorsed as delivering a course aligned with the future employment needs of the naval shipbuilding industry.

Its Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) (Honours) is endorsed with the following programs of study expected to follow:

  • Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) (Honours)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (Software) (Honours)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (Maritime) (Honours) – in conjunction with the Australian Maritime College
  • Bachelor of Engineering (Electronics) (Honours)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (Robotics) (Honours)

To meet current and future industry requirements, Australia needs to ensure the VET and higher education sectors are both high functioning and complementary, with learners completing both VET and higher education qualifications throughout their careers to support progression. The perception that VET is for learners who are less engaged in schooling must be addressed.

Consistency and quality
The NSC strongly supports the continued use of training package products to help ensure consistency of outcomes, however, there are still a number of challenges with these qualifications in relation to currency and relevance, and in some cases, flexibility of packaging rules. Particular issues arise as industry implements new technologies and adopt more contemporary manufacturing techniques. Examples include the qualifications within the Metal & Engineering and Electrotechnology training packages, amongst others, where the ability to import additional marine construction content would be of benefit to the industry.

Acknowledging that regular updates to training packages can have a resource impact on training providers and potentially disadvantage learners, there are a number of training packages that have remained without substantial update for many years. In some cases, content within the training package is no longer relevant to industry or there are cases where no units of competency exist to develop the skills and knowledge required by industry.

Industry is constantly having to adapt to technological advancements and increased globalisation. It is essential that training package products are updated to address changing requirements and emerging technologies. The Australian Industry and Skills Committee, and its network of Industry Reference Committees (IRCs) should be held accountable for ensuring training packages remain current and relevant. Industry representatives and employers must also ensure strong engagement with individual providers to ensure training is contextualised to reflect industry practices and requirements within the unit of competency standards.

The NSI, now under the guidance of new CEO Ian Irving, seems predominantly aimed at the later end of the workforce pipeline; students who are finishing school and looking for their relevant qualification in either the VET or university space. It also has a workforce register that industry can access when looking for suitably skilled people.

He said there would be challenges ahead that will need to be met and overcome.

“It’s always hard when you are doing something new. This is a new endeavour which has not been attempted before on this scale,’’ Irving said. “The industry will require a significant ramp-up of skills and overall numbers which will stretch industry to find these new workers. We’re getting out ahead of that need, reaching into our schools and communities to identify and skill up the future workforce, and this is going on in a growing economy and a highly competitive labour market for these skilled workers.’’

However, with challenges come opportunities.

“I would like to see the image that people have of naval shipbuilding better reflect the reality of today’s ultra-modern digital shipyards. This enterprise will be using the world’s most advanced technologies in a range of areas from sophisticated digital fabrication to artificial intelligence combat systems on our future boats and ships,” he said.

There is much to be done in the shipbuilding space over the coming two decades. If the work is to be achieved on time and on budget, the foundation being laid now will be key to its success.

This article first appeared in the August 2019 edition of ADM. 

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