Australia is staking much of its post-pandemic recovery on our manufacturing and engineering sectors. However, a lack of suitably qualified VET in Schools and Technologies teachers raises doubts over the supply of skilled workers that this recovery will need. By Karen O’Reilly-Briggs.

Late last year, the only undergraduate course in Australia purposefully designed to recruit and ‘upskill’ industry experienced tradespeople and technology experts to become qualified Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Technologies secondary school teachers was closed. What makes the closure of this program of particular concern to industry is that it has come at a time when the nation is gearing itself – more so than any other time in Australia’s history – for an economic recovery that is dependent on young people wanting to pursue trade and technologies-based vocations.

The Federal Government has promised a “pipeline of skilled workers to support sustained economic recovery”, but in order to generate this pipeline, we need appropriately skilled and qualified teachers with industry expertise and a deep knowledge of pedagogy (the science of teaching and learning) to nurture young people’s curiosity and their desire to enter trade and technical career paths after completing their schooling. The closure of this teaching course has left a vacuum in the secondary school sector, with many stakeholders wondering how exactly governments intend to achieve this “pipeline” to recovery, without the quality or quantity of specialised teachers needed for the job.

Compounding the gravity of this situation is the already-existing skill-shortage of graduate VET and Technologies teachers. In 2019, the Design and Technologies Teachers’ Association (DATTA) conducted a nation-wide survey of schools to find that the overwhelming majority of schools surveyed had difficulty finding qualified Technologies teachers, and that 84% of these schools were using unqualified teachers (teachers from other learning areas, such as geography) because they were unable to find the teachers with the expertise that they really needed.

The Victorian Teacher Supply and Demand Report 2018  supports these findings, revealing that Digital Technologies teachers and Product Design and Technologies teachers are some of the most difficult teachers for schools to find. Curiously (with one cursory exception), VET teachers did not even rate a mention in this report, which is arguably indicative of the Victorian Government’s lack of concern for quality VET provision in schools. Although no official data appears to exist to quantify the actual shortage of VET in Schools teachers, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this claim. Reminiscent of the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, omitting or censoring data concerning the demand for VET in Schools teachers will not make the problem go away.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and the 2018 Gonski Review of Australian schools all acknowledge the importance of having appropriately qualified VET teachers with relevant industry experience and accreditation to help prepare the next generation of workers. However, the nation now finds itself in a situation where the existing pool of qualified VET and Technologies teachers is depleting with each passing day, and secondary schools are increasingly desperate to find suitable teachers to stand in front of these classrooms. Somewhere between the skill-shortage of VET and Technologies teachers, and the nation’s reluctance to develop suitable courses to generate the quality of teachers needed, some highly questionable practices have been taking place.

Without access to appropriately qualified teachers, it is now not uncommon for principals to place ‘out-of-field’ teachers in front of Technology and VET classes, or use trade or technically-qualified (but not teacher-qualified) trainers to teach on a special (but temporary) authority called Permission To Teach (PTT). Both of these ‘solutions’ are unsuitable for quality school teaching, and in some cases cause safety risks. DATTA’s 2019 survey found that 70% of respondents harbour concerns for the health and safety of Technologies students as a result of the practice of using unqualified teachers to teach these subjects―and with good reason.

What is needed is a solution that includes a practical and accessible way for expert tradespeople and technologists to become professionally qualified teachers.

While VET and Technology professionals continue to be denied the opportunity to achieve a professional teaching qualification, schools, and the students who would otherwise be benefiting from their industry expertise, will be disadvantaged. Meanwhile, the industries that depend on schools to produce a vocationally ‘ready’ workforce should brace for disappointment.

Karen O’Reilly-Briggs (PhD) is a trade-qualified metal fabricator, welder, trade teacher, researcher, academic course writer for Box Hill Institute, and former coordinator of the Bachelor of Technology Education program at La Trobe University. A version of this article was published in Education Review. E: