Employers and industry bodies have highlighted growing concern that Tasmania's vocational education sector will not be agile enough to expand quickly or respond to meet its post-COVID needs.
The Premier's Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, in its interim report released this week, made several recommendations to the state government to expand VET places in Tasmania.
The report noted feedback from several employers, who expressed concern Tasmania's public provider TasTAFE will not be able to be flexible or agile enough to completely meet the needs of the workforce.
"Given the rapid shift in labour demand created by suppression measures and subsequent stimulus spending, there needs to be ongoing support for workers transitioning between sectors, particularly into construction," the interim report reads. "There also needs to be a concerted response to the rapid decline in new apprentices and trainees across a range of sectors, pointing to future skills shortages."
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Tasmania's VET sector has been at the centre of the state's COVID-19 response, as the government and other stakeholders pin economic recovery on sectors such as construction, plumbing and electrical.
And while, as noted in the report, there have been initiatives announced by both the state and federal governments to support the VET sector:
"Nonetheless, employers remain concerned that TasTAFE and the training system more broadly will not be able to provide the responsiveness, agility and industry-relevant training required to support Tasmanians into emerging job opportunities, as well as improving the flexibility and productivity of existing workers."
Master Builders Tasmania chief executive Matthew Pollock said it was not as simple as not having faith in TasTAFE's ability to respond to the needs of the workforce, but more about ensuring there was a wider net available for prospective students or people looking to upskill or retrain.
"The training system is agile enough but what we're talking about needing is an increase in the overall capacity of places," he said.
The construction industry, in particular, has been given a boost in recent months, particularly in Tasmania, where several infrastructure projects have been brought forward.
Those initiatives will help bolster the pipeline of work but Mr Pollock said the sector would still require a steady stream of workers and apprentices.
He said what would benefit the system as a whole would be for individual industries to take a far greater role in providing the training needs of its employees for industry-relevant training.
While TasTAFE and the government respond with what they can, Mr Pollock said industry needed to step up to the plate.
"It's important industry plays a greater role in providing the skills and training moving forward," he said.
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A program that worked parallel with TasTAFE between industry and training providers would help to bridge and gaps that exist, he said.
TasTAFE's role in the economic recovery has been placed relatively at the centre of Tasmania's response, with Premier Peter Gutwein establishing the Skills Roundtable, which includes representatives from TasTAFE and from various industry sectors, to help provide insight into the response.
TasTAFE chief executive Jenny Dodd said at the most recent round table, there had been strong industry endorsement of TasTAFE's relationships.
However, she said if further work could be done, she encouraged those in industry to speak up and work something out.
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"We encourage industry sectors to talk with us. Where industry needs training and work with us in a partnership, we are always able to offer a training solution," she said.
"TasTAFE is responsive and able to tailor training solutions for industry through packages of skill sets to meet their immediate training needs. TasTAFE has pivoted its training towards more skill sets in semester two to be more agile."
A most recent example of TasTAFE's response to COVID-19 was the Skill Up for your Future program, Ms Dodd said.
Skill Up offers several short courses to participants free of charge, to encourage reskilling of people impacted by COVID job losses.
Ms Dodd said there had been more than 300 enrolments for the first round of the Skill Up courses, which began on June 29.
A new suite of courses begins in August and September and there are more than 100 confirmed enrolments for these courses.
Community expectations and the discourse surrounding VET education has led to fewer enrolments than compared to tertiary education and universities but Mr Pollock said what this report showed was that VET will be needed to ensure Tasmania's economic survival.
"What this shows is that there is going to be a shift, the jobs that will be required for COVID-19 response are overwhelmingly jobs that are educated for by the VET sector," he said. "It's heartening to see the focus put on the VET sector in this report because it shows a turning of the tide."
Mr Pollock said he hoped the report and the industry response would shift the conversation around VET to be one that is more positive and focused around strong job outcomes. "It [VET] can be a number one pick for students, it leads to fantastic and rewarding job outcomes," he said.'
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Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff said the government was considering the recommendations of the PESRAC report but had already announced initiatives that supported the aims of the report.
"We want to deliver the maximum number of low-cost of fee-free placements for Tasmanians, which means utilising both public and private providers," he said.
Tasmanian Labor has taken to the next election a policy that advocates for free TAFE and VET education, however, Mr Rockliff said that was not an increase in investment.