Preparing for the digital economy

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) has been looking at the role of vocational education and training (VET) in supporting the growing need for digital skills in the Australian workforce.

The five RMIT University researchers, Victor Gekara, Alemayehu Molla, Darryn Snell, Stan Karanasios and Amanda Thomas, have released their interim report (Developing appropriate workforce skills for Australia’s emerging digital economy: working paper), which provides an opportunity for stakeholders to engage with the research mid-way through the project, enabling early results and findings to be used to inform decisions as needed.

The project

The overarching aim of this project is to identify the digital skills requirements for the broader Australian workforce and examine the capacity of the vocational education and training (VET) system and industry training packages to effectively meet the growing need for digital skills. As part of the project’s outputs, the study will develop a replicable methodology for reviewing the alignment between skills needs and training capacity, as well as propose a digital skills framework to guide the development of adequate and appropriate digital skills for the emerging digital economy.

The analysis is based on two sectors as case studies — transport and logistics, and public safety and correctional services — with the intention of the findings being broadly transferable across the economy. The study is based on the premise that digital skills are becoming increasingly important for enabling individuals to participate effectively in today’s society.

Why digital?

Digital technologies are increasingly interwoven into all parts of our lives and impact on the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of individuals as private citizens and as workers. As growth in Australia’s digital economy accelerates from 5% of GDP in 2014 to a projected 7% of GDP in 2020 (Deloitte, 2016, p.3), digital skills will become increasingly important across Australia’s workforce.

For the purpose of this study, and the analysis involved, digital skills are defined as a combination of a digital mindset (hardware, software, information, systems, security and innovation), knowledge (theoretical comprehension and understanding), competence (cognitive and practical knowhow), and attitude (value and beliefs).

Study methods

The study employs a mixed method approach, combining both qualitative and quantitative analyses. It involves industry training package content analysis, content extraction and analysis from online job vacancy advertisements, and key industry interviews, as well as a quantitative employer survey. This paper primarily relies on data from the first two methods.

In the online job vacancy analysis, a total of 1,708 job advertisements covering 74 occupations/job titles were analysed to explore digital skills requirements. These occupations were drawn from a list of occupations identified as ‘in demand’ in the 2015 environmental scans produced by the respective industry skills councils of the two sectors under consideration. In addition, a detailed content analysis was conducted of 11 training packages, with a specific focus on the qualifications for these occupations. In this analysis, 758 units of competency were analysed to examine how and the extent to which digital skills provision is embedded into qualifications.

Study findings

From the online job vacancy skills analysis a number of key observations are made:

  • Of the 1,708 jobs searched, only 204 job vacancies across all of the selected occupations specifically mentioned digital skills. This poses important questions regarding employers’ articulation of digital skills and how well they are explicitly stated rather than perhaps assumed. This is important, considering that industry evidence suggests that occupations are changing as the economy enters a digital age, characterised by sophisticated efficiency and productivity-enhancing mechanical and digital technologies.
  • Even in the job advertisements where digital skills were specifically mentioned, the level of expected application is largely vague and mostly basic. Employers used descriptions of expected performance like ‘strong’, ‘good’, ‘sound’, ‘solid’ and ‘basic’. This suggests that employers are not clearly articulating their specific skills needs.
  • Additionally, employers seem to require a very basic level of skills: mostly basic computer operations and digital literacy. However, we identified some trends in terms of skill levels and digital tools across industries and occupations, and across position levels (for example, managers/professions and technical/trades).
  • It is also evident that employers tend to conceptualise and articulate digital skills from a tools perspective. Instead of listing the skills they require, they simply describe the tools they would like prospective employees to be able to use and operate.

The digital skills training content analysis of the 11 training packages reveals a number of important findings:

  • The VET system clearly contains a significant amount of digital training content, spread across different units of competence.
  • However, a large number of these units of competence are elective rather than core to the qualifications of the respective occupations. While this provides greater flexibility for training providers, trainees and employers, it suggests that perhaps the training system is not according digital skills the same ‘essential skills status’ as would be expected, considering their growing importance.
  • Digital training content in the training packages is expressed broadly and generically, with little reference to specific tools and systems. This is done deliberately, with the aim of making the package flexible and adaptable to the wide variety of workplace tools and systems used by different industries across the sectors.
  • It also shows that the training is more geared towards developing skills at the lower skills end; that is, for the basic use of computer hardware and software in processing data and information from organisational databases, as well as for online internet and web sources. This is counter to growing industry evidence of an increasing need for higher-level skills in data analytics, cyber-security, social media and mobile-related digital skills (see Deloitte 2016; Hajkowicz et al. 2016).
  • The analysis also suggests that digital skills training content is available for all occupations across the sectors and at all levels. Interestingly, there appears to be more digital skills content in the lower-skills occupations; that is, in operational and non-supervisory than in higher-skills occupations such as managers. This is an indication that, as digital skills become essential in all work settings, there is an assumption that people training for and entering higher-skill occupations already possess the necessary digital skills.

Summary assessment

There seems to be a number of differences and similarities between what employers want (job advertisements) and the articulation of digital training content in the training packages. One key difference is that, while employers tend to define skills from a tools perspective, the training packages seem to provide a highly open-ended and broad layout of the training needed to equip people to work in a digital economy.

A key similarity is that both the employers and training package developers appear to have a basic and generic view of digital competency but frame these differently. This implies, therefore, that the way employers understand and articulate their skills needs (at least to potential employees) is different from the way training package developers understand and craft training guidelines. This is a problem that is attributable to the observation, from the literature, of lack of a uniform industry approach to conceptualising and articulating what constitutes digital skills and how they should be measured.

Since the development and updating of training packages is a tripartite exercise, with strong representation from industry employers through industry reference committee (IRC) and skills service organisation (SSO) arrangements, it is possible that employers are failing to clearly articulate the kinds and levels of digital skills they require in this area. This is leading training package developers to present a largely basic and open interpretation of technical content. Thus, while the findings from this stage of the research are important, they raise several critical questions and signal the need for further exploration to establish in-depth explanations for the observations here.

Next steps

The next stage of this project — comprising key industry interviews and a survey of employers — will further explore what employers have specified as digital skills needs in job advertisements and how this compares with the content in the relevant training packages.

Considering the lack of uniform articulation of digital skills requirements and training package content, it is apparent that a ‘national digital skills framework’, akin to the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework, would be useful in supporting the needs of employers and training developers. The framework could guide the development of appropriate and adequate skills for the emerging economy. Such a framework is also needed to help define digital skills training content — to encompass the technological, informational and contextual aspects that are fundamental for the sustained productivity of the workforce in the continually transforming digital environment.

This effort would be informed by existing international practices such as the European digital competency framework, which defines key components of digital competence in the five areas of: information and data literacy; communication and collaboration; digital content creation; safety; and problem-solving.


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