A skilled workforce now a must-have

A range of training courses, from competency based apprenticeships through to mature age workers’ programs, can help raise the skill levels of a workforce.

Twenty or thirty years ago, many manufacturing plants were still filled with a high number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, most doing boring repetitive jobs. But not today. Over the years there have been major changes occurring in the manufacturing industry.

It has become less labour intensive with far more technology and equipment taking over the roles of many jobs. In many cases, these workers have been employed for 30 years or more and have a wealth of experience.

The problem is there are limited calls for their specialist areas anymore. However, as most employers know, mature age workers, those with a considerable body of experience, can easily turn their hands to many other areas.

To take advantage of this experience, Bob Paton CEO of Manufacturing Skills Australia (MSA) told Manufacturers’ Monthly, there are a range of programs and government funding opportunities for manufacturers to improve and upskill their workforce.

“For example, the new Skills CheckPoint pilot program is aimed at pointing people into different careers or occupations where they can use the range of the skills they have,” he said.

Aimed at workers between 45 and 54 years, the program is a free advisory service funded by the Australian Government. It offers an assessment of where individuals are in their career and guidance if a change in career direction is needed or desired.

This may include transitioning into new roles within their current industry or pathways to a new career with a view to encouraging reskilling in the new industry and engagement in the workforce. Pilots are being run in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT.

Paton said the true measure of confidence is when workers can take something where they have the skills and knowledge and apply it in a different context and environment. “And most people who have been in the workforce for 10 years or more are doing that as they move from job to job.

What they learnt in one industry they can move to another,” he said. “This is about getting a formalised approach to that and pointing out that the strengths people have can really help them shift into other occupations. It is a great initiative and certainly helps getting the best out of the workforce.”

However he admitted that working with mature age workers requires a far different training approach to younger workers. This is mainly because they are not starting from the baseline. “People who have been in the workforce for decades have a wide range of adaptable skills, and it’s about showing them how to adapt those into a different context and environment,” Paton said.

Paton believes most tradespeople have the fundamental skills, such as problem solving, to successfully move into management roles.

“This program recognises something which people have known about for a long time. It tries to make it a more efficient and effective process, moving people into different forms of work,” he said.

Incentives and opportunities

Paton said the Federal government provides a range of incentives and opportunities for companies, manufacturers included, to improve their workforce and up skill people.

“Many of the programs are not about the skills needed to operate machines or pieces of equipment, but about the flow of work and getting the best out of the equipment and people that are there such as Lean Manufacturing,” he said.

He said these up skilling programs have been very successful and most are funded by the Government, with a co-contribution from the company on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the company.

“In many cases the company can notice, often within weeks, a change in productivity gains arising from those programs. They are quite significant,” he said. Paton said one scheme that should be of interest to manufacturers is the Industry Skills Fund which is replacing the very successful National Workforce Development Fund.

“This very successful co-contribution program, which is managed by the Federal Government’s Department of Education and Training, gives companies the opportunity to get tailored training of its employees to suit the company’s particular needs and that of their workers,” he said. “It has the ability to turn a manufacturer who might be facing difficult times into one that is more successful.”

Paton said another standout program is the newly named Competitive Systems and Practices, which is a series of vocational qualifications aimed at business improvements by implementing lean processes and systems. “It’s not rocket science but it’s quite complex in detail.

There are programs that start at very low level workers and go up from there,” he said. “It starts with areas such as 5S and how to organise a workplace, then goes on to incorporate a lot of the fundamental principles of Lean Manufacturing, but in ways workers can build into, and their supervisors can help to.”

He said these sorts of project-based programs are readily available, with funding available in most cases. “They can provide great gains in productivity. And rather than workers sitting in classrooms, they are actually delivered in the workplace with the context of the enterprise built around it. They are very successful,” he said.

He said the issue of mature age workers is growing, with companies looking for people with skills. “While older workers might face physical challenges associated with their work, they still have significant benefits that they can provide to a company,” he said.

“It’s about finding ways of doing that, including passing on their knowledge and skill onto younger people. “It’s an untapped resource and as a nation we still need to do more work on how to get the best out of that.”

Competency-based training

For workers at the other end their working life, an Engineering Excellence Project has been established under the Accelerated Australian Apprenticeships for manufacturing trades in a bid to increase the completion rate of apprenticeships. The three year project, which ran up to 2015, has shown that shifting from time-based assessment of apprentices to competency based progression is having a positive effect on completion rates for engineering apprentices.

The project has resulted in employers having a better understanding of competency based progression and completion, and has led to improved communication between employers and Registered Training Officers (RTOs), who now have the tools needed to manage the implementation of competency based progression for their apprentices. Megan Lilly, Head of Workforce Development with the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) told Manufacturers’ Monthly her organisation is committed to competency based training.

“It means people can move through the apprenticeship system based on their genuine progress and what they are doing in the workplace,” she said. She pointed out that many young apprentices have finished year 12 and are much more engaged in the learning and training experience. However Lilly admitted it is a difficult model and adds complexity to the apprenticeship system. “It doesn’t fit comfortably with a neat timetable model.

But it’s a fresh contempory model that meets the need of the individual, and if they can get through quicker and get more meaningful employment that’s a really good outcome, but if they need more time and get it then that is also a good outcome.”

“It’s about finding ways of doing that, including passing on their knowledge and skill onto younger people. “It’s an untapped resource and as a nation we still need to do more work on how to get the best out of that.”

Around 2,500 apprentices were involved in the project across the country, which started in 2013. Lilly said the system is supposed to be rolled out across manufacturing and other industries, “but it appears some people are keener than others”. She said that, while there are still quite a number of fall outs with this new system, the number is far better than the number for time-based apprenticeships “which is alarmingly high”.

Lilly said there are many reasons why so many apprentices leave early. “Sometimes it’s quite complex. But the biggest risk fall out period still remains the first six months, as they realise it’s not for them,” she said. Interestingly, she doesn’t see this new system as the end of traditional apprenticeships. “It’s rather a more contemporary flexible model with a lot more focus on the apprentice and their experiences,” she said.

“These are important things, but it doesn’t change the core of the apprenticeship which is the relationship between the apprentice and the employer and the learning in the workplace.” Instead of the traditional four or even five years, many apprentices are now finishing their training in just over three years.

And most, but not all, employers are very happy with the scheme. “I think there needs to be more information of how the system works up front, and what their role is, which is quite important,” Lilly said.

Her advice to manufacturers is to take on more apprentices and embrace the scheme. “Manufacturers should be deeply engaged in helping apprentices learn and signing off on their competencies. This way, employers get a good outcome, as well as the apprentices,” she said.

“While there are no major shortages of skilled workers at the moment, it won’t take much for it to become a major issue again. So we should be cracking on and getting more training happening now.”

MSA 02 9955 5500


Ai Group

02 9466 5566


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