Skills for Victoria’s Growing Economy
Re: Industry Submission on “Skills for Victoria’s Growing Economy”
The Victorian Water Industry Association (VicWater) is the peak body for the Victorian water industry, with all 19 water corporations as its members. VicWater is focused on supporting Victorian water corporations and the broader industry in their objective to provide efficient and sustainable water and wastewater services in Victoria.
As noted in your Skills for a Growing Economy: Issues Paper, the Victorian water industry is a priority sector identifying short-term skills deficits. These reflect its inability to fully attract and retain technical staff because of:
- High competition in infrastructure and building industries across the nation;
- Limited skills supply; and
- Regional geographic limitations.
I will address each of these issues below.
The water industry provides an essential service to Victorians. Its focus is to provide high quality water supply, wastewater treatment and waterways services across the state. It is also a foundation of Victoria’s liveability through the reliable provision of quality water, management of waterways and receiving environments, recreation facilities and the betterment of a large portion of the state’s public landholding.
However, the humility in which the Victorian water industry goes about its work means that, without support from the State in its promotion, its exposure is limited. Relevant post-secondary candidates are more likely to choose other more noticeable infrastructure industries, such as transport, energy and telecommunications. This relative ‘invisibility’ of our sector is a problem for which that we are aware and motivated to address.
The greater profile our sector can achieve as truly innovative, progressive, inclusive and supportive1 will not only improve its abilities to attract skilled candidates, but fundamentally the quality of our State. As we experience and expect major impacts to our operating environment from climate change and changing population across the state, while losing a large cohort to retirement, our need for intelligent and innovative people will only significantly grow.
Our industry is experiencing major shortfalls in the supply of professional and vocational skills. It is concerning to note that, whilst Victoria has the highest percentage of employees in the water industry compared with the rest of the country, our VET opportunities to support these employees is limited and reflected by “a decrease in enrolments by 65% over the last four years (Skills Forecast 2019, p14)”.
This significant lack of vocational training extends across our whole sector. With the recent advice of Chisholm’s National Water Centre closing its doors leaves our sector with few and insubstantial choices for VET.
According to the Skills Forecast for the Water Industry-conducted in 2019, the roles associated with the Certificate IV in Water Operations, while listed as Traineeship funded, are traditionally the hardest to recruit. Training for this and all our essential competencies in water and wastewater operations suffers due to its relatively small participation rates for the education sector. Despite the necessity of this training, the viability of these courses seems to be difficult under current funding models.
The few RTOs in Victoria left to provide these courses are expected to finish within the next five years due to retirement. And trainers within the RTOs are not qualified to provide the full spectrum of training, limiting student subject choices and, ultimately, the range of competencies required by our sector. This issue is further compounded by the Victorian Government’s slow response to update funding guidelines around Certificate II and Certificate III Water Operations, a barrier for many regulators to access the training, when fee for service is the only option.
As a result, some of our members are seeking interstate RTOs for their training, again at a considerable cost.
We are also seeing that RTOs and their course designs are not keeping up with the technological requirements of our sector. Augmented by the coronavirus pandemic and recent bushfires, the reliance on IT and OT systems to maintain our essential services needs to be matched by post-secondary training. We are not confident, according to our experience, that this will prevail. AI and tailored digital technology development are important facets of future skills development that cannot be ignored.
Therefore, the maintenance of Victoria’s essential services will likely fail in time without:
- Learning centres and training facilities dedicated to the water industry.
- Subsidised and tailored VET and other training for essential services industries, like ours, that offer relatively few participants.
- Government incentives encouraging training flexibility such that individuals with higher qualifications are eligible for subsidised training if registered as a trainee or apprentice.
- Incentives and development for industry Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to become qualified trainers and/or assessors.
- An easier system of recognition of prior learning and experience for undertaking a qualification which currently requires a significant portion of time to complete.
- The development and deployment of courses and resources in micro-learning modules for skills currency that rapidly respond to industry changes.
We cannot be confident that our current resilience will hold through future catastrophic incidents (fires, floods, pandemics, etc.) without addressing this systemic problem.
While across the state we see these difficulties, there are some areas where skills development and transfer are working for our industry. Barwon Water in Geelong are finding enablement through a connected and localised training model involving RTOs, employment agencies, and innovative programs to support the disadvantaged.
We are also finding the traineeships offered to Aboriginal Australians in land management have proved effective in supporting the students’ development while helping our sector to better appreciate working on country.
As a general observation, we find too much emphasis on university courses that guide students into career direction that do not offer appropriate opportunities. For our industry, a greater promotion of VET and how it relates to real career pathways and outcomes would provide greater opportunities for post-secondary employment while maintaining our sector’s viability.
There are opportunities to further engage our industry in post-secondary skills development. Given there is a large cohort of retired and retiring employees from our industry with excellent skills and experience, supporting RTOs to transition such employees into mentorship and training roles would be highly beneficial from a people and skills perspective.
We also see more promotion and support for pre-vocational training programs (e.g. Certificate II), career and technical pathway programs. While this concept is not new, it is known to provide students an opportunity to adjust from secondary school and develop/mature their employability and life skills. This clearly provides mutual benefits.
The problem of skills shortage and misalignment is most marked in the regional water corporations, where access to engineering and other professional staff is limited by geography.
One story that Lower Murray Water in Mildura shares exemplifies this problem. Currently, the water corporation is developing a new talent strategy with the notion of a ‘grow your own’ approach to skills development as it has been unsuccessful to secure post-secondary qualified staff and build graduate programs that reflect its needs. Access to education for Lower Murray Water and other members is severely limited, despite their consistent and targeted efforts to engage with the education sector. Currently, their local university does not provide the suite of courses to fill their capacity gaps. And their local TAFE does not produce the skills required to provide the essential services they are regulated to fulfil.
Consequently, Lower Murray Water has sent staff elsewhere for training. For example, apprentice electricians are travelling to Melbourne and Bendigo for training at the cost of the corporation and its customers. Because of this significant cost, Lower Murray Water has resorted to developing existing staff from within their trades and other disciplines into qualified engineers and other professional staff. Clearly, this is not sustainable.
Thanks to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our industry like many has become increasingly adept in the use of online technologies. We are not seeing the change as pronounced in our post-secondary training providers, which limits the regional members to efficiently engage in alternative forms of training.
To address this need, we suggest:
- Greater promotion of VET and how it relates to real career pathways/outcomes. While this is universal, its impact would be most felt by our rural and regional members.
- A stronger account management or client-focused approach by the education sector to support rural and regional water corporations.
- Incentives for regional placements to facilitate greater intake of skilled employees across our regional members.
- Online training and support by RTOs utilising and facilitating the use of emerging technologies in training assessment and delivery support to encourage a greater uptake of VET and efficient learning modes, especially for our regional members.
The content in this submission has been provided with the assistance of our members. If you have any questions about our recommendations, please contact me directly: [email protected].
Chief Executive Officer
¹ For example, the recent State of the Public Sector in Victoria 2018-2019 (Victorian Public Service Commission) demonstrates our industry’s leadership in these indicators across the government sector.