Numeracy skills are a key driver of economic growth and yet, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2008) nearly eight million Australian adults lack the numeracy skills to cope with everyday life and work. The vocational education and training (VET) sector is one part of the solution; however the VET workforce may be limited by its own skills needs. There is no research available to indicate what the implications are for the delivery of adult numeracy skills training in the workplace and for building the skills capacity of workers to effectively and adequately meet business needs.
This study begins to redress this gap by examining the capacity of the VET workforce to address workplace numeracy skills needs, particularly in the process manufacturing industries, industries that rely greatly on the numeracy skills of its semi-skilled workers. While this study is small, it does raise questions about the capacity of the current VET workforce to address the numeracy skills gaps of existing workers.
The research questions examined were as follows. The term ‘VET practitioner’ is used to refer to language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) specialists and vocational specialists collectively.
- What numeracy teaching qualifications and experience do VET practitioners have?
- To what extent do VET practitioners understand the importance of the numeracy skills of working-aged Australians generally and, specifically, of existing workers in the process manufacturing industries?
- What are the perceived and actual numeracy skills levels of VET practitioners?
- What numeracy skills gaps are preventing VET practitioners from effectively addressing the numeracy skills needs of existing workers in the process manufacturing industries?
- What is the capacity of Australian VET practitioners to address the numeracy skills needs of working-aged Australians?
Both qualitative (self-assessments, focus group discussions, interviews) and quantitative (numeracy assessments) approaches were used. The numeracy assessments comprised an assessment tool developed specifically for the research project. The assessment questions were contextualised to the process manufacturing industries and mapped to the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF), with a focus on numeracy levels 3 and 41. All data-collection tools are included in the support document.
The sample included 44 VET practitioners from Melbourne and Sydney who deliver workplace-based training. Of these, 20 self-identified as LLN specialists and 24 self-identified as vocational specialists. Participants were approached on the basis of their attendance at state-based Australian WELL2 Practitioner Network meetings or as vocational trainers working at registered training organisations active in the delivery of process manufacturing qualifications. Minor differences in skills, qualifications and experiences relevant to adult numeracy training were found between the two groups.
The research found that participants tended to have a limited understanding of the importance of numeracy in general but demonstrated an interest and a willingness to reflect on it and adapt their thinking. It was further found that participants had a limited focus on workplace numeracy. This was confirmed by participant accounts of their experience in delivering workplace numeracy skills. The numeracy skills delivery that was identified was described by participants as at a ‘basic’ level. Most LLN specialists reported rare and only incidental delivery of workplace numeracy skills training, while most vocational specialists reported delivering workplace numeracy skills training more often, as specified in the unit requirements within qualifications.
None of the participants had a specialist adult numeracy training qualification, not surprising given that only one qualification, the Graduate Certificate in Adult Numeracy Teaching, was found to be available. Six participants were identified as having an adult training specialisation that included a numeracy component, including one participant with the Vocational Graduate Certificate in Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice, one with the Advanced Diploma of Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice in VET and four with an adult basic education qualification. Adult numeracy specialist qualifications are discussed in relation to the United Kingdom’s Skills for Life Program, where there is a separate diploma-level qualification for each specialty area, and VET practitioners seeking to qualify as an adult numeracy specialist in the United Kingdom must undertake a numeracy proficiency entry test.
The research draws attention to the unreliability of numeracy self-assessment and consequently the importance of the numeracy testing of trainers, with participants generally overestimating their numeracy skills. Best practice numeracy assessment scoring methods used for this research is questioned with respect to its suitability for determining VET practitioner preparedness in the workplace context.
The analysis of the numeracy assessment data showed that most participants had numeracy proficiency skills levels below the current benchmark in the Vocational Graduate Certificate in Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice, the nationally recognised qualification applicable to those with responsibility for adult literacy and numeracy training. The benchmark is questioned by the researchers as being too low by comparison with the standard suggested by international research and adopted by the United Kingdom’s Skills for Life Program.
The report also explores the differences between numeracy and mathematics, the characteristics of numeracy in the workplace context and the implications for pedagogy and numeracy assessment.
Based on the findings, it appears there is a mismatch between what is required to address numeracy skills needs in the process manufacturing industries and the current capacity of VET practitioners, in terms of their understanding of numeracy requirements, and their qualifications, skills and experience.
1 The Australian Core Skills Framework describes performance in five core skills: learning, reading, writing, oral communication and numeracy. Within each core skill there are five performance levels ranging from 1 (low level) through to 5 (high level performance).
2 Workplace English Language and Literacy Program.