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What on earth is happening with Skills Service Organisations? Oh, and WHY?

The end of 2015 brought the closure of some Industry Skills Councils, and uncertainty around whether others would continue the training package maintenance work. Way back in April 2015, Assistant Minister Simon Birmingham (now Minister) announced a few overhauls to the VET system, including the establishment of SSOs (Skills Service Organisations), which brought the cessation of funding to ISCs.

Since that time there has been an intriguingly furtive tender process, which appears more like a grant process, to find suitable entities to carry on the training package maintenance work (sort of, we'll get to that).

Under the new system, the Australian Industry and Skills Committee (already up and running) will oversee Industry Reference Committees (IRCs, yet to be publicly announced). Each IRC will be served by one of up to six SSOs, whose roles appear reduced from that of the Industry Skills Councils (ISCs) to something like a secretariat service—providing training package technical writing support and guidance to prepare material for submission.

Scoping work and decisions about changes to training packages will be taken on by the IRCs, a marked departure from the previous system, and one that entrenches the government's much bragged about 'industry driven' approach to standards development. Don't get me started on that catch phrase for this latest VET reform and how 'industry collaboration' can be more like an episode of House of Cards than Gilmore Girls.

Department of Education and Training diagram demonstrating ... well, not much really.

Department of Education and Training diagram demonstrating ... well, not much really.

Beyond that basic outline, information about how the new SSOs and IRCs will work together has been scant. The initial deadline given for the announcement of SSO contract winners was September 2015. Now it is January 2016 and the silence is deafening. There was a FinReview article suggesting PwC would pick up an SSO contract, and stating that IBSA has not been successful. Communication all feels a bit Game of Thrones, whereby brief news is drip fed by winged couriers, who are only as reliable as they are likely to bear good tidings.

If you will allow me a moment of despair ... What is clear is that whomsoever wins contracts to act as SSOs will have their work cut out for them catching up on VET knowledge and training package maintenance skills. Many Industry Skills Councils housed highly competent technical writers and VET experts, many of whom will have moved on to more reliable pastures by the time the SSOs are setting up.

As anyone who has been involved can tell you, writing an effective qualification or unit of competency is not a mere admin task that can be achieved by just anyone with a keyboard; it requires a deft hand at both the consultative and technical writing stages. Additionally, a deep knowledge and understanding of VET and competency based training is a considerable advantage.

Let's not even touch upon the fact that familiarity with the relevant industry assists writing and review work immensely. Finally, knowing the volume of calls ISCs fielded from RTOs on a daily basis, I would not wish SSO status on any company that is not already familiar with VET.

None of this is to say that changes weren't required to improve levels of consultation in some industries. Or, that the training package review timelines were not in some cases too long (although this was generally because consultation was fraught due to industry not always being the cohesive, cooperative group with one vision that this reform agenda assumes it is, unions present or nay).

However, rather than trimming back to the healthy stems and growing afresh, perhaps with stronger direction, this government has chosen to rip the bush out by the roots and start again. Perhaps the new bush will grow to be stronger, but it will take time, and time is something that federal politics does not have. Before the bush reaches maturity it will be deemed inadequate and replaced with yet another (better) one. Will we never get any berries?

Yes, I do bemoan the loss of talent and experience from the departed ISCs. But I am not going to wallow in the past for long. Whatever shape the SSO-IRC relationship takes, one thing is certain: they will need quality advice from people who know VET. And thus, the time for sulking is over as we prepare to embrace and make the best out of what is coming.

Whenever it comes ...