Lessons from Abroad: Improving Australia's Approach to Workforce Planning

10 Nov 2011

This report for Skills Australia seeks to consider approaches to data collection for workforce planning in four advanced industrialised nations: the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), Singapore and Norway.  We utilise three key categories of analysis: Buchanan and Evesson's (2008) two categories - the production of workforce projections (or workforce planning), and planning for workforce development and to this we have added blue sky research. This category describes speculative research undertaken to promote creative thought about the future of the workforce.  The goal of blue sky research is not to accurately predict the future, but rather to consider the possible options available.

United States of America
In contrast to Australia, the USA produces superb data for manpower planning via the Bureau of Labour Statistics, but its institutional arrangements mean it has limited capacity to usefully deploy this information consistently.  There are, however, excellent examples of highly innovative and effective planning for workforce development at both the state and local level that Australia could learn from. Additionally, the USA's National Academy of Sciences is conducting world leading blue sky research into the changing nature of work.  For example, one such examination tentatively concluded that it was possible that computer abilities could substitute for human abilities in occupations that currently employ 60 percent of the national workforce in 2030 (Elliott, in Hilton, 2008).  Whilst not meant as a definitive prediction about America's future workforce, such data collection and analysis has the potential to significantly assist US policymakers to better plan for future workforce development. 


United Kingdom
The UK is a highly informative case study, as it has a long history of experimentation with regard to skills planning which has explored both narrow (headline labour market indicators) and expansive (skill utilisation) notions of workforce and workforce development planning. The UK's Office of National Statistics produces excellent national data for workforce planning.  This data is supplemented by two employer and one employment relations national surveys: the Employer Perspectives Survey (EPS), the Employer Skills Survey (ESS) and the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS).  The UK has recently embarked on some blue sky research, via the UK Commission on Employment and Skills' (UKCES) Labour Market Information Forum. One key recommendation from the Forum concerns the importance of promoting labour market information to individuals making decisions in the labour market about their own individual training goals.  This assumes that the more well informed that individuals, employers, training/education providers and policy makers are about the labour market, the more effective their actions and decisions are likely to be in producing better workforce development. 


In the context of comparative workforce planning research, analysis of approaches to workforce development in Singapore is potentially informative to the Australian experience for two reasons. Firstly, the formation of the formal training system in Singapore and the structures and agencies underpinning competency structures have been deeply informed by both the UK and Australian training models (Sung, 2010; Willmont, 2004; Willmott, 2011), but have been adapted to suit the needs of the Singaporean economy.  Secondly, the way in which workforce planning has been undertaken is heavily state led and highly integrated, and this represents an interesting contrast to the more fragmented (less integrated) processes of planning which are argued to underpin Australian workforce development at the present time. In stark contrast to the approaches in the US and UK,  the geographically small nation of Singapore's "top down" and centralised approach functions in the absence of any regional initiatives, and largely independently of nongovernment bodies.  This allows Singapore's workforce planning regime to be clearly defined by economic priorities - which in turn are settled in negotiations with the investment decisions of large multi-national companies. 


Statistics Norway is the central state agency responsible for collecting data for workforce planning, and it conducts projections on the basis of this information.  However, the state does not try to unilaterally determine priorities from this data, but nor does it devolve responsibility to the market. Rather, it is used primarily by agencies such as the Education Ministry to run campaigns encouraging student choice.  Norway's regime is nestled within a framework of lifelong learning for citizens - a framework that has in recent times given greater control to a 'generalist' as opposed to 'vocational' notion of education.  Norway's most recent innovations have involved greater recognition and support for workplaces and enterprises as sites of learning for general education, such as literacy, as well as technical education. In contrast to other nations examined, Norway's strong promotion of learning has led to superior planning for workforce development.  As a direct consequence, Norway's resources boom has evolved in the complete absence of skill shortages, and Norway continues to enjoy strong economic successes. 



Possible lessons for Australia
The collection of quality data alone does not promote excellent planning for workforce development.  Quality information must be acted upon.  International evidence demonstrates strong value in national level instruments that allow projections of general trends and some consideration for sectoral level scenarios.  Dimensions of workplace level experience should be incorporated into national data collection.  This kind of information needs to be supplemented at the local level with quite specific quantitative and qualitative information.  Critically, international lessons suggest that whilst quality data collection should be promoted, inappropriate data collection should be actively discouraged.

Quality data must be subject to robust analysis, interpretation, dialogue and dissemination. Data should be disseminated with the goal of promoting 'adaptive capacity': the ability of individuals to exercise and develop skill adaptation, and the ability of business units to adapt and drive larger scale shifts in skill adaptation.  In large nations with diverse regional economies, this appears to works best with working regional or occupational clusters, or sustainable skill ecosystems.  Countries that have actively challenged prevailing assumptions, such as those underlying skill shortages, have thrived. Successful states do not rely on solely 'state led' or 'market based' approaches when using data to plan for workforce development.