Rethinking Skills in VET: From Competencies to Capabilities

Project Contact

Associate Professor Leesa Wheelahan
T: 9035 5547
W: Personal web page

Project Details


The NSW Board of Vocational Education and Training (BVET) commissioned LH Martin Institute Associate Professor Leesa Wheelahan and RMIT University's Gavin Moodie to prepare a paper on skills.The result is a report which argues that vocational training has to adapt to meet the needs of a changing society and economic conditions. It advocates a shift from a narrowly defined competency basis to a capability framework in order to more effectively prepare students for broad occupations in loosely defined occupational streams, a feature which may underpin the next generation of vocational education.

Research Outcomes

A critique of competency-based training

The current focus of training a person to conduct formalised tasks or roles restricts training to current practice and limits the knowledge acquired to subjects that can be immediately applied and observed within work practice. This narrow focus limits students’ capacity to apply knowledge in new contexts, constraining innovation.

Inconsistent transitions to work and further study

For those already in employment when they undertake training, over two thirds of workers in low paid occupations and 86% of those in higher paid occupations do not move into a different occupational skill level following completion of VET training. As a result, the report concludes that the narrow focus of VET qualifications has not resulted in more efficient training or helped to enhance educational pathways.

Problems with generic skills

The authors conclude that it is domain specific knowledge that forms the basis for professional competence and that ‘soft skills’ are a secondary consideration.To address this, the authors call for greater educational focus on the depth and complexity of applied theoretical knowledge that underpins workplace practice, industry specific knowledge and skills that transcend particular workplaces.

Introducing the capabilities approach

Capabilities refer to people’s potential to act and make choices in their lives, as distinct from an outcome that may arise from a particular choice. It aims to build capabilities that can be exercised in different ways. Capabilities also cover the individual, social and environmental resources needed to enable people to exercise choice.

Aligning educational pathways

VET and higher education providers in Australia already overlap in offering vocational and general education that prepares students for work, however the report argues that the sectors have different approaches, with higher education seeking to develop autonomous individuals who are co-producers of their own learning, while VET is targeted to workers who are under the direction of others. Greater curricular coherence between VET and higher education and more seamless educational pathways are possible outcomes of a capabilities approach.

Building vocational training’s credibility

The report suggests that the increasingly detailed specifications in training packages imply low levels of trust in VET’s curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, creating a compliance culture rather than one that encourages innovation and adaptability. Instead, the report proposes moving away from the precise specification of learning outcomes linked to workplace tasks and functions to create simplified standards across a broadly defined occupation that define the knowledge base of practice, industry specific requirements and professional attributes that individuals need.


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