Lauren Hollows is the founder and CEO of Understand TAE, an emerging company offering innovative advice and a growing range of simple-to-use tools designed to help RTOs develop their internal capacity. Having run RTOs from senior management positions for the better part of a decade, Lauren now uses her extensive knowledge and experience to deliver professional consultation and training to RTOs looking to develop their internal capacity — both from a regulatory and training view. We spoke to Lauren about what it takes to produce first-rate trainers in the VET industry in 2017.
VET eXpress: Before you found yourself in the VET industry, you studied to be a primary school teacher. Were you instinctively drawn towards teaching and education from an early age?
Lauren Hollows: I’ve got many teachers in my family — across a wide range of sectors; primary, secondary, higher education. I think teaching has always been in my blood. In high school, I used to mentor other kids, I was a tutor — it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. I love seeing other people develop and grow. And watching their confidence grow out of it.
VE: In high school there can be really good teachers…but also really bad, memorably bad, teachers. From your memories, what kind of things made a great teacher for you?
LH: I think the great teachers had a couple of characteristics. One, they pushed you, and in a good way. They wanted to see you grow. But it was equally clear they believed in you, and what you could achieve. That’s passion. A great trainer is passionate. A great teacher is passionate. That passion becomes infectious in the classroom. It’s really important. The great teachers were willing to connect with you . They understood that education is still a very individual process, and knew that it required different things for different people, and that there are different motivations. They were willing to go the extra mile to do that, and they got it back tenfold as well.
VE: Now that you’re working in the RTO and VET industry, with a focus on teacher development — from your professional experience, how do individuals develop themselves into better trainers over time?
LH: Primarily, it’s the constant process of being a lifelong learner. The challenge for trainers is to be the masters of two worlds. First, they have to be masters of education; understanding training and assessment and design. Trainers have to keep all of those skills current. Second, they have to be current in their industry areas. It’s extremely challenging on a day-to-day basis to be the master of two completely different areas. We have new trainers coming in with fantastic industry experience and they’re really keen to learn about academia and how training works. A lot of them have done ten days in a classroom and now are expected to be professional teachers. I studied teaching for four years and I’m still learning, so it’s a really big task for them. On the other side, you’ve got trainers who’ve been training for years and years and know it inside out. But they’ve still got to be current with their industry as well. With the regulatory environment becoming much more challenging over the past few years, and expectations continuing to rise, trainers are constantly having to play a balancing game between these two passions. Hopefully, they can find an RTO or body that will be able to support them in both areas. Because by developing trainers, that’s what actually develops the quality of our industry. We need to foster that.
VE: With trainers having to master two sides of the job, and adhere to increasingly strict compliance requirements, what can RTOs do to develop and nurture their trainers, and also develop better training culture?
LH: I think that one of the keys is planning. Time is such a precious resource that it’s very important for RTOs to set professional development plans for their trainers, and plan out how they’re going to be supported in development for the rest of the year. To pull a trainer out of training for a day; for a lot of RTOs that can just seem like income that’s not being earned that day. For many RTOs, that’s a big ask! So that time needs to be really well planned and thought-out. The biggest thing RTOs can do is actually spend that time at the beginning of the year or even the middle of the year setting out a really clear plan for staff development. Every trainer develops differently. Ask: what are their strengths and weaknesses? How can we support them with professional development throughout the year to build those areas that might be weaker? If they’ve never sat through an audit, we might dedicate time to update them on what the current standards are and what the current regulatory relationship is. If they’re a new trainer, can we spend time demonstrating how another trainer achieves a 90% retention rate with students? That skill of standing up in a classroom and actually keeping the attention of twenty or thirty individuals for a period of hours, that’s hard! That’s a real skill that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. But it’s something that you have to do, and it pays off tenfold. Having that plan about how you’re going to develop individual trainers throughout the year — we know its money well spent, that we can see the investment pay off.
VE: Is simulating an audit — allowing your trainers to experience what it’s like to be audited –a valuable way of getting trainers prepared for the process when it inevitably does happen later down the line? How do RTOs typically deal with the auditing process?
LH: It depends very much on the size of the organisation. It sounds strange to say — but I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of audits last year from different regulatory bodies. It’s very difficult, but it was also amazing professional development for me. Smaller organisations typically drop everything to prepare for the audit. For larger organisations, it can be completely separated from their main operation. They’ll have a ‘strikeforce’ come in designed to deal with the audit. I think there’s strengths to both models. Having the entire organisation involved gives all the individuals an opportunity to really understand how strongly the regulator is taking the new auditing model. It’s great exposure and professional development in that circumstance. But there’s an argument to say if it’s a separate specialist group handling compliance, then trainers and staff can stay focused on what their core business; providing a service to our students. It just depends on the size of the organisation and the resources that are available to them.
VE: Does the size of an organisation impact upon the kinds of things being picked up in the audits?
LH: Well, the new ASQA risk ratings were introduced last year — and size is definitely a factor the regulators take into account. An organisation training a hundred students is a very different beast to one that is training ten-thousand students. The impact each is having on the sector will be very different. But there’s other factors too. An organisation that has a hundred qualifications, or an organisation that deals with multiple funding models, or international students are all handled differently. The last couple of years we’ve seen the focus on VET-FEE help, and generally there’s been a much stronger focus on communication between the regulator and the funding — about which providers offer up more risk to the regulator.
VE: What are the best practice RTOs doing right now?
LH: For me, the best practice RTOs are ones that see their employees an an investment and understand they have to grow the capacity of every one of their staff members. Organisations that are willing to put their administrators through professional development. Organisation willing to take the time to sit down and work out professional development plans. Organisations that are proactive and are actively seeking that information. Organisations building a relationship with industry and actively investing in developing their staff. These kinds of RTOs embody what it is they want to build in their students, and that is being a lifelong learner!
VE: What’s your secret? How do you stay current and proactive and energised in the industry?
LH: I only sleep four hours a night! No, I’m kidding. I don’t know! I love what I do, I love watching people develop and I love to develop myself. If I’m not growing as a person, I’m stagnant or I’m withering. Walt Disney coined it: “…we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I’m very excited about the times that are coming up ahead, both for myself and for Understand TAE. We’re going to be launching a brand-new product that we hope will be very valuable to the VET sector. It’s very much focused on helping trainers and helping RTOs develop their trainers because that’s what we’re passionate about.
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