Will the development of Competency Based Training lead to improvements in education and training outcomes which, in turn, flow through to higher performance levels in the workplace. Jane Carnegie, Industrial Officer, ACTU.


I’m not sure how I ended up with a topic entitled “CBD – Where is it taking Australia”? For a start, CBD is not a term I would normally use and as for the scope of such a title I doubt very much whether a CBD or CBT system or whatever you want to call it either could, or would, take Australia anywhere!


Perhaps a more meaningful topic would be “What is the impact of CBT on the level of workforce skills in Australia” and/or “How does CBT contribute to improving Australia’s productivity and international competitiveness.”?


Whatever the precise title, the key point is to determine whether the development of CBT will lead to improvements in education and training outcomes which, in turn, flow through to higher performance levels in the workplace.


A number of difficulties arise in commenting on such a topic. There are so many stake holders involved, all with different levels of commitment and understanding of the reform process. Some have clear objectives, others are less clear. In some areas objectives and processes are agreed, in others there are obvious differences. Implementation is advanced for some aspects such as standards but almost nonexistent in other areas such as agreed assessment and RPL procedures.


Today, I want to provide you with the views and ideas of the trade union movement, so as to improve your understanding of our perspective.

The Context

Last week, I was privileged to attend a dinner with Ray Marshall who is visiting Australia as part of an international study tour examining training and labour reform for the Clinton administration. Marshall was the Secretary of Labour to Jimmy Carter and is now a Professor in Economics and Public Affairs as well as being a Senior Adviser to the current Secretary of Labour, Robert Reich.


Some of you may have seen newspaper articles about his visit or have come across his book Thinking for a Living – Education and the Wealth of Nations.


I would like to read you an excerpt from the Introduction to Thinking for a Living because I believe it exemplifies the thinking behind union movement support for CBT and the National Training Reform Agenda. I should point out that Marshall was not writing as a unionist but his views are certainly similar to those espoused by the Australian Trade Union Movement.


“The future now belongs to societies that organise themselves for learning…. More than ever before, nations that want high incomes and full employment must develop policies that emphasise the acquisition of knowledge and skills by everyone, not just a select few….”America’s standard of living is dependent upon increasing national income by “improving productivity dramatically….. There are only two ways to compete – reducing incomes or improving productivity and quality…. The thesis of this book is simple. The key to productivity and competitiveness is the skills of our people and our capacity to use highly educated and trained people to maximum advantage in the workplace”

(Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker Thinking for a Living Basic book 1992 pps XI II – XVI.


During his trip in Australia, Marshall went further, praising the means we have set in place for improving productivity and maintaining wage levels through our industrial relations processes. He strongly advised against changes which would lead us down the ‘low wage’ road. To quote -Ray Marshall again:


“The Evidence suggests if you pursue a low wage system you are going to lose. If you go down that road two things can happen to you. One is that companies will have to leave a country like Australia or the US in order to be competitive because there are always countries with lower wages. The other thing is that your wages will become much more unequal because you have a few well-trained, well educated people and professional people who are really in an international market’:…. whilst the rest are subject to a ever decreasing standard of living. (The Australian 17/2/94)


The trade union movement in this country has long recognised the truth of Ray Marshall’s words, as indeed, have many forward thinking employers. Our commitment to the National Training Reform Agenda stems from a similar conceptual base. This was encapsulated in the 1991 ACTU Congress Policy ‘Towards a High Competency Society:” in the following terms:


“To maintain and improve living standards, Australian requires a shift from low value added, low skill, domestically oriented production to higher value added production and services directed towards the global market. This can only be achieved through a continuous process of employees adding to their learning and responsibilities in new forms of work organisation and professional development, throughout their working lifetime”


The 1993 Congress Policy identified a subset of goals which a reformed system of vocational education should encompass. These are:



  • nationally recognised, portable qualifications;
  • skill development at all work levels in a workplace not simply at the “trades/skilled worker” level,
  • access within a broad range of industries and occupational areas;
  • integrated ‘pathways” through which individuals may gain recognition
  • the universal introduction of a competency based training format to the vocational education and training area,
  • the reorganisation of work based on ‘high performance’ principles.



Underlying these goals is a cultural, economic and industrial relations change process which impacts on both worker and management. From the perspective of the worker and trade unions it involves an ongoing and increasing commitment to skill development, constant work change and acceptance of the challenges of quality production and services in an international market. For management it means increasing commitment to a longer term view, to a view of productivity which goes beyond labour costs to human development and which places greater trust, responsibility and decision making in the hands of the worker.

Competency Based Training

CBT or CBD, if you prefer, is central to the change process occurring in Australian vocational education and training.


CBT has been strongly supported by the ACTU and its affiliates. The reasons are outlined in the ACTU’s Congress policy framework which describes the principal benefits of CBT as:-


i) providing the means for greater national consistency in education and training outcomes and providing the basis for a national system of qualifications relevant to industry,

ii) improving integration between work and learning and between vocational education and general education;

iii) providing for recognition of prior learning, (RPL) as a central part of the competency training process,

iv) improving efficiencies through recognition of existing competencies, greater flexibilities in learning times, and greater emphasis on credit transfer (thereby reducing duplication of training effort);

v) creating greater gender equity through higher recognition of women’s skills and a broadening of structured training arrangements to industries in which women predominate;

vi) supporting award restructuring and better definition of skill levels in awards/enterprise agreements;

vii) facilitating the process of changing work organisation and quality improvement;


viii) providing the basis for better understanding by employees of the relevance of their prior learning, the importance of transferability of skills, the value of recognised qualifications and the potential for career progression.


The development and implementation of CBT in Australia has been based so far on some agreed fundamentals.


These include:



  • tripartite policy making processes




  • an industry focus




  • national in scope




  • outcomes defined by standards




  • inclusion of essential broadbased generic competencies




  • flexibility in delivery and recognition




  • quality assurance mechanisms




  • relevant qualifications




  • increasing participation



Tripartism is important in ensuing the key stakeholders are involved and committed to the process;



An Industry focus is essential in facilitating consistency, transferability and portability of skills. The key mechanism for identifying industry needs are the ITABs.


A national scope is needed to overcome the duplication and inefficiencies of the past and to ensure an effective labour market and meaningful career path for employees. The new Australian National Training Authority (ANTA), the NTB, and the NFROT Agreement are critical to the national system;


A standards based system is the cornerstone of CBT and ensures outcomes or competencies are clearly identified as the basis for training delivery assessment and recognition;


Key competencies need to be incorporated as the basis for ensuring the essential and broadbased competencies required of all employees are enmeshed within the system;


Flexibility in delivery through a variety of providers; flexibility in pathways; flexibility in recognition through formal, informal and workbased learning are features of the system;


Qualify assurance is required to ensure consistency of outcomes and acceptance across the system. The ACTU recognises the NTB and the NFROT as the key quality assurance mechanisms of the system;


Qualifications need to relate direct to the new system and to the ASF levels of the NTB to remain relevant;


Increasing participation – expansion of VET to encompass training opportunities for a much greater proportion of the population is essential. Hence the Finn and Carmichael targets and introduction of the AVCTS

Implementation – Achievements And Difficulties

Competency Standards are, as I said earlier, the linchpin of CBT. The standards express the identified outcomes that industries and enterprises actually need in the workplace. The process of defining standards is undertaken by industry with a framework which enables consistent development and expression. The framework ensures that the standards can be used as benchmarks for the other components of CBT including accreditation, delivery, assessment and certification.


Both the policy framework and its application are the responsibility of the NTB. The NTB carries out five key roles in implementing the process. These can be summarized as



  • developing and maintaining the policy and guidelines




  • recognising bodies to develop competency standards




  • providing advice and assistance to these bodies




  • endorsing the standards brought to it by these bodies, considering issues of quality, consistency and useability




  • reviewing the standards to ensure continuing relevance, improved quality and usefulness.



The number of recognised bodies of CSBs approved by the NTB has reached 41 with 25 of these having some 69 sets of standards endorsed by the Board. The target set of having 50% of the workforce covered by standards will be met by mid 1994.


One of the difficulties of developing CBT is that it have been a very new and difficult process. Developing standards of high quality requires enormous energy, commitment and a long lead time by all involved.


The inevitable lag in the availability of standards means little concrete activity can occur in downstream aspects of the process until they are set in place. The slow start to realisation of the standards has led some people to question the efficacy of CBT. However, the dramatic increase in endorsement rates in the latter six months of 1993 and the expected endorsement levels in 1994 should mean that most industries can now develop and finalise their CBT processes.


The ACTU recently conducted a survey of union members in ITABs to ascertain the level of activity taking place. One of the questions dealt with conversion to CBT. Of 18 major ITABs surveyed 5 said that standards were 80-100% complete; a further 5 had their standards at 60-80% complete and the rest were in the beginning and middle stages of development. Some like community services and health were behind the eight ball because their existence as an ITAB has been so limited and they have had delays and difficulties in getting standards projects approved because they were so late on the scene. Of those who answered the survey all expect to have their standards, curriculum and delivery systems in place either this year or next. When asked whether they were experiencing problems with the introduction of CBT half said yes and the other half no.


This is an interesting observation because these are the bodies at the frontline of CBT. Unfortunately the survey was insufficiently detailed to establish why some had problems and others didn’t or what the nature of the problems were. Nonetheless, the commitment to CBT remains strong amongst the unions responding to the survey.


The standards development and endorsement processes of the NTB have been dogged by other criticisms beyond the lengthy delays in implementation. These go to questions of quality, inflexibility and industrial relations implications.


I am the first to admit that some indifferent standards have been accepted in this first round of standards development. However I can also say that the quality is constantly improving and that in the Review process the Board will monitor this aspect closely to ensure a continuous improvement process. From the perspective of the union movement this will be a critical phase for without high quality standards the whole system will falter. The standards need to include all aspects of competency as outlined in the NTB Policy including task skills, contingency management skills the ability to transfer skills as well as underlying knowledge necessary for competency.


Standards also need to reflect the needs of firms using higher performance or best practice work organisation. If that is not done, if the standards end up mirroring current work organisation, then the standards will serve not to improve skills and productivity but will encase in concrete Taylorist work organisation and the poor practices of the past.


With regard to ‘the competency education’ debate, the union movement has strongly identified with the view that the NTB Policy establishes a broadbased approach to competency which integrates knowledge, values, attributes and skill.


The charge that the standards framework is inflexible, bureaucratic and does not meet enterprise needs has come principally from employer organisations – such as the BCA and ACCI. From the union perspective the approach to dealing with these criticisms is to ensure that the main pillars of the system are reinforced whilst clearly unnecessary and burdensome aspects of the process are reduced.


The NTB has amended its Policy and Guidelines to enable greater access by enterprises to the NTB processes. The ACTU supported these changes as a means of encouraging new training pathways and participation in recognised training by new groups.


With introduction of the enterprise stream the NTB has maintained an approach which identifies ‘industry’ standards as the principal form of standards but which enables access by enterprise.

Industrial Relations

Industrial relations has been an issue which has impeded implementation in some industries. The main problem has related to the linkage (whether real or perceived) between pay, progression and competencies. Last year the NTB modified its approach to alignment of competencies so as to make it quite clear that alignment against the ASF does not support any direct relationship with an award classification level. The ACTU supported this separation in the NTB processes to ensure the viability of ASF alignment for the purposes of defining a credential, curriculum and RPL.


The decision does not prevent the industrial parties from using award or enterprise classifications as part of the process of determining alignment and indeed of making the connection between competencies and pay. But these are seen as issues for these parties to resolve no the NTB.

External Factors

Beyond the NTB and standards setting processes there are a number of other participants and organisations which are impacting on implementation of CBT. Some are openly hostile to the change process, some covertly so. Some of the issues which need to be dealt with include Federal/State relations; conservative/labor governments; traditional delivery mechanisms such as TAFE coming to grips with a new training market in which industry plays a lead role; shifting traditionally curriculum orientated training institutions to a standards based system; putting a new qualifications structure in place; establishing the AVCTS System; making the National Framework for Recognition of Training (NFROT) work in practice; devising assessment systems which are valid, fair and equitable; developing articulation and credit transfer with higher education.


The time and effort involved in getting all theses aspects of the system defined, agreed and into place has become of itself a substantial barrier to the reform process.


Some parties are now questioning the relative value of key aspects of the National Training Reform Agenda such as CBT citing the lack of progress, the variability in quality of outcomes, the limited real influence of industry and the perceived complexity as reasons.


Whilst much of the criticism is genuine, led by a frustration that after four years of policy development there is little hard evidence of a real improvement in education and training outcomes as measured by the factors/I outlined earlier, there is also a certain amount of political manouvering by some stakeholders which is feeding the process of doubt. The motives of some of these players is complex particularly at the bureaucratic level and has little to do with the issues of implementation.


ANTA has commenced a review of the N.T.R.A with the objective of:


“advising on the management of change in the private and public sectors to evaluate implementation of training reform in training providers and workplaces with a particular focus on the delivery, assessment and recognition of training.”


The Review will be conducted by a team of consultants led by Dr Vince Fitzgerald and will report back to ANTA in April/May. Such an exercise may hopefully shed some light on the factors which contribute to success as well as identifying barriers to implementation, thereby providing ANTA with some constructive proposals for continuing progress. Alternatively, the process may generate the means for a range of groups to come together, who, for different reasons, wish to undermine the NTRA or certain aspects of its implementation.


Speaking personally, I am concerned about the ramifications of the Review. I believe it is too early to judge the system when it is really only in it infancy. As I made clear earlier there has now been substantive progress in the standards area which will enable downstream applications and training delivery to commence.


The ACTU will make a submission to the Review. The substance of that submission is yet to be finalised but one point we will be making very clear is the need to ensure that standards based competency approach is maintained and that the fundamental policy framework which is already agreed is retained. Within that framework certain quality assurance mechanisms are essential including endorsement of standards through a national body and the registration of training providers and accreditation of courses in accordance with the NFROT Principles.


Without such processes both outcomes and delivery would be manifested by unfocused, adhoc and extremely variable training arrangements. Some best practice’ human resource orientated companies may achieve training which is universal, based on high quality standards and which is integrated into the overall work organisation but for many others the cultural change necessary to achieve such ends in a long way from being practiced.


In conclusion the approach to CBT in this country has been different from anywhere else in the world. The ACTU believes we have got the fundamentals rights. What we need now is some fine tuning, a clearer position on assessment and above all else greater participation by industries and enterprises to make the system work. Only through active participation will we iron out the problems and only through participation will we realize the benefits.


Jane Carnegie Industrial Officer, ACTU. Speech to Competency Based Management Development and Supervisory Training Conference – March 1994.