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Interview with Martin Powell

October 29, 2017

Martin Powell is the CEO of the VET Development Centre, whose experience working with ACPET and on the National Advisory for Tertiary Education Skills and Employment has established him as a prominent leader in the VET industry. He sits down with Reay Mackay, founder and managing director of aXcelerate, to discuss his experiences in the industry.

Reay Mackay: I was referred to you originally, Martin, by Eric Marcasani, who’s a partner of ours. I’m not sure if you’re aware of Eric, but he’s been a follower of VET Development Centre for a number of years.

Martin Powell: Yeah I know Eric, he’s intelligent. He’s helped sponsor our conference and those sorts of things. He’s helped us with some presentations and webinars too.

RM: Because VET Development Centre (VDC) has such a high profile for the professional development sector in Victoria, you’d have most of your big events in Victoria, is that right?

MP: In terms of the face to face delivery, absolutely, but with our webinar reach now, we’re getting quite a few people from the other states for our own “feature service” activities, which has been great.

RM: Could you provide a little background context to your roles and experience leading up to when you first became involved with VDC?

MP: In terms of the role leading up to the VDC, I won’t go back too far, but in terms of vocational education, I was involved a big agreement negotiation, which would’ve been the last contract that was done with the Commonwealth SPP. That was a really good exposure to the policy side, in the national setting for VET. I was employed in the higher-education and skills group in Victoria then, which gave me a really good network in Australia with the other training authorities. I then became a director of the national VET equity advisory council known as ENGIAC, and that was one of the COAG advisory councils under that arrangement. So that was part of TVET Australia, which you may have heard of. And actually whilst I was in that role, I was asked to be in a reference committee for an indigenous capability program that the TVC VDC put together.

RM: What did that program involve?

MP: It was fantastic. It focused on empowering the indigenous liaison officers in Victoria, and placing them in a leadership and mentoring program over a year. We put around 50 people through that over a few years. This also involved research and evaluation, so myself and an indigenous person in NDIAC were part of a committee on that project.

So anyway things changed in Canberra as they always do, and I ended up luckily at ACPET for a couple of years. It was quite a tumultuous time, but a fantastic experience getting to know those providers, and what they were dealing with in the marketplace, and how they engaged with students. And then the opportunity came to take this role, which I don’t think I would have received if I hadn’t had the ACPET experience. ACPET helped me understand the public side well, and gave me a real sense of the market.

RM: I wasn’t aware that you had specific professional development programs for Learn Local, until I visited your website. We’ve got a number of our community colleges and ACE colleges who have the Learn Local funding, so that’s interesting.

Yeah absolutely. I think that’s what really attracted me to the VDC. You don’t need to be a member to be involved in it, and it’s not advocating for any particular component of the sector in regards to private, public, or community. But we get all of the trainers and professional staff from the three parts of the sector, and to see them together, partaking in any of the events or PDs is just fantastic, getting them to focus back on vocation and student outcomes.

RM: That’s great that you’ve got that spread of traditional VET, but also the Learn Local, and also the VET in schools. I noticed that you’ve got quite a focus on that as well for teachers.

MP: Absolutely. The Victorian Education Department came to us to arrange work placements for 100 government school teachers, which has been a fantastic challenge, and quite exciting to be involved in.

RM: Do you have a sense of how many VET school teachers are involved in Victoria?

MP: I couldn’t answer that precisely, but we’re talking about 100s of schools involved. I think there were at least 500 schools involved in the program.

RM: So it’s probably going to be upwards of 1000s of teachers involved?

MP: Well potentially that’s right. When you take into consideration the Catholics and the Independents, it gets broader. But they’ve kept this to the government to start with. But that was an interesting pilot, and it showed that there was interest when they came to the VDC, and because it was very much a VET focus even though it came from the school side.

RM: Interesting.

MP: All of this experience we get here we put into the PD we deliver nationally, so it’s quite a good balance to have.

RM: So in terms of the professional development focus the VDC has, what are the key areas you find have greatest demand for skills development? And what has been the real focus in those demand areas in the last 12 months?

MP: That’s a good question. One thing that I’ve really noticed pick-up recently has been around the soft skills area, particularly dealing with students on drug and alcohol issues, or with learning difficulties, and really more that emotional intelligence side of dealing with classrooms of diversity. That really has been over-subscribed. And LGBTI workshops and webinars, which I think we’re the first to do so, and they have been very popular.

RM: Interesting.

MP: Yes. It shows the diversity of the students and the practitioners wanting that support. Having said that, what always goes gangbusters is anything to do with online facilitation — how to be better at that, training and assessment strategy, and being compliant with state government funding contracts.

RM: So all of the bread and butter stuff. But you’re seeing greater growth in the soft skills, which I can imagine over the coming years is only going to increase as more and more automation is introduced into industry and business sectors.

MP: Absolutely right. And how any online or self-paced learning complements your other teaching methodologies; you still can’t see the other conversational face-to-face interactions, and it’s getting that balance right.

RM: Absolutely. I’m interested to ask you about the rise of some of the accredited training offerings that I’ve seen crop up around VET compliance and RTO compliance and compliance management. There’s some new Certificate IV and diploma courses as well. Does VDC have any plans to offer any competency-based training around compliance, or is that something you’ll leave to an RTO to deliver?

MP: That’s a good question. VDC’s distinction is the fact that it isn’t an RTO. And as a ministerial company, it operates as a public company but is still owned by the Victorian government. This gives us a status and credibility that if we went into a commercial space, it would instantly put us in one of those categories that I was talking about before. We’ve also changed how flexible we can be in that delivery, so the board doesn’t have any plans to go into that space. Because you could argue “why wouldn’t one of the TAFEs in Victoria do that differently if the government wanted to go into that area?”

RM: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting to see that as an organisation which offers non-accredited training, you’ve got these demands increasing, particularly in the areas of soft skills. I think that would give a lot of encouragement to training organisations who do offer accredited training, but also potential for non-accredited offerings to also boost their revenue streams into the future.

MP: It certainly could. And there is always a way an organisation like ours could broker with them to assist anyway. Which is an interesting point.

RM: So as a training organisation yourself, what are some of the challenges you face in meeting the ever-changing demands of your clients, and also the ever-changing technologies and learning modes that seem to be evolving rapidly as well?

MP: Well, that’s right. I think the challenge is getting the right person in organisation management to know what you’re offering, and that just constantly changes. We have quite a strong cohort which consistently comes to our PD, if it’s funded by the government or otherwise, and it’s sort of breaking to a broader group than that. How do you do so? Obviously with the social media we’ve picked up a lot, presenting ourselves on a website; the V in our name doesn’t stand for Victoria, it stands for VET. And we’re not compulsory, because it’s continual professional learning. But it’s certainly implied in the standards by having skilled trainers and assessors. So certificates of attendance still have a lot of currency and weight when they come through. So the challenge is, without seeming too forceful, explaining that this is required for your own vocational career path. You should be engaging with us.

And you’ve touched on some other points. There’s a perception that people are ‘time poor,’ which we know they are when we schedule a workshop, be it a full day or a half-day. If you get the time of year right, you’ll get a really good attendance. At other times, the practitioners or administrative staff are simply too busy. The same goes for webinars. What time of the day should they run? How long should they go for? We try and refresh the topics and renew who’s doing them as much as we can. I think that’s a way around this. But otherwise, it’s really just trying to get that message out there.

RM: And so, in relation to professional development, obviously you’ve got great success with your traditional face-to-face workshops and seminars and conferences, but in terms of the future of training and learning delivery, what are the key changes that you’re forecasting, that you need to start preparing for, in relation to further online learning or other modes of delivery?

MP: We’ve taken a dual approach with this literally this week, as we’ve moved into new premises and it’s the first time the VDC has had its own training facility. It’s quite exciting for us, because when it started we could do five events a year, and last year we did 130. And that was a mix of face-to-face and webinars, so it seems logical for us to make the centre literally our centre. Which is fantastic. So now we have two state-of-the-art training rooms, and some other webinar facilities. The idea is: yes, you’re right, self-paced learning is obviously one way to go. We’ve been introducing more of those; sessions you can run yourself in your own time, and webinars would diminish. But face to face is still an important aspect of CPD. And I think to get any practitioner outside of their environment, to come and have a break from it and have a different stimulation, won’t diminish in the future years.

RM: Well that’s very encouraging to hear! Especially for people who think that one day in the not-too-distant future everything is going to be online and no one is going to conferences or can afford to travel, so that’s encouraging to hear.

MP: Well, yeah, they complement each other. And you can’t undervalue the human interaction. When we see people networking, they’re sharing their experiences with others, and you can’t undervalue that.

RM: So just taking a slightly different tack, in the recent May budget, there was the announcement of a $1.5 billion boost in federal funds for new apprenticeships and traineeships in the five year period from 2017 to 2021, so the program appears to have started on July the 1st. I’m just interested to find out how you think this additional funding will impact on the Victorian VET market in particular, and what sort of opportunities might there be for RTOs to focus on in the next 1 to 2 years.

MP: It’s certainly a fantastic injection into the system. And I would argue or suggest that it’s definitely an opportunity for the sector to refocus after the student loans scheme. So here we are again, really selling the message of a quality experience in VET, as a career path. So obviously I think TAFE are well positioned to take on apprentices and the GTOs, and others are well-placed with traineeships. And there are many good providers who do so already, as we know. So for me it’s about selling that message to schools and parents as they transition perhaps not to universities but these other career paths. In terms of an RTO, regardless of who you are, you need to position yourself with employers and the industry to really explain that you can deliver the right workforce for them.

RM: From your existing client base, what sort of feeling are you getting about the optimism, or otherwise, about VET into the future?

MP: It’s interesting because it depends where you’re coming from. The TAFE sector here is quite buoyant at the moment, given that there’s a focus on rebuilding it and establishing it, but they’re certainly not taking that for granted. Everyone we deal with is keen to get better at their industry engagement, in terms of validating not only what they deliver, but also the relationship they have with industry. I think RTOs who feel a bit scarred by what’s occurred with the loan scheme should be able to get over that, and those who are getting on with it, I think you can separate yourself from that. The Learn Local have taken a lot of student numbers which have said the same thing, about how are they going to engage their students once they’ve gone through them, perhaps pathways to the RTOs and TAFEs. Overall I think there’s definitely a positive environment that we have here, and hopefully in the rest of Australia as well. But that certainly is a huge injection.

RM: Any further comments about the sector?

MP: I think we’re all lucky in the sector that we have roles which contribute to the outcome of people’s lives being education. But you should never lose focus of that. We’re not just here chasing profits; it’s really about contributing to society. If you’re feeling a bit underwhelmed or stressed by the behaviour of others, I think that’s really something to focus on.

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