Telstra is the latest company seeking to increase the skills of its workforce by forging university partnerships.
As part of a new $25 million training package, the telecommunications giant will use “workplace coaches” to strengthen staff in “skills, practice and mindset”. But it is the new university partnerships that will lift this training to an industrial level of output.
From the end of this year, the University of Technology, Sydney, will begin teaching Telstra employees big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. From February 2020, micro-credentials in software-defined networking will be offered to staff in partnership with RMIT University in Melbourne. And from next April, micro-credentials in cyber technology will be offered through the University of NSW.
“For a long time, corporations were saying educators aren’t producing the right graduates, and universities were saying corporates need to be clearer about what they want,” says Telstra’s group executive for transformation and people, Alex Badenoch.
“But it’s hard for unis to be ahead of the curve when technology is changing so fast. With something like 5G, the standards are still being finalised.
“We realised it has to be a partnership. Corporations and educators have to be focused on the same thing. I believe how we proceed has to be a holistic effort.”
Professor Glenn Wightwick, the deputy vice-chancellor of innovation and enterprise at UTS, says Telstra turned to the universities because of their research expertise and their ability to offer courses in small chunks, or micro-credentials, which can be taught inside the company.
Wightwick says universities are good at credentialling, and staff want credentials that will last beyond their life at Telstra. For its part, UTS wants to place students in the company and offer postgraduate pathways into Telstra. The university also has an eye on research opportunities, with high-speed wireless, antennas, 5G, food innovation and the internet of things all part of its core activities.
“Telstra is evolving from a communications company to a technology company,” says Wightwick. “That’s an opportunity for us. We can work with them in a way we can’t work with other global businesses which only have sales and marketing teams in Australia.
“As a national carrier, Telstra has enormous investment in rural Australia, it’s advanced in mobile technology, and it’s a big investor in technology. That makes them an important partner for a university like UTS.”
As employees and employers increasingly recognise a greater need for lifelong learning, companies are stepping in to fill gaps in the education system.
Athletic clothing retailer Lululemon recently partnered with Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne to offer a diploma of business to managers. Torrens University Australia has established a partnership with Flight Centre to meet the development needs of travel and tourism workers.
Last year, Microsoft launched a traineeship program, delivered by TAFE NSW, aimed at creating a new pipeline of IT talent, where trainees will receive a Certificate IV in Information Technology.
In September, University of Sydney Business School dean Professor Gregory Whitwell warned that employers had unrealistic expectations about the skills they demand of university business graduates.
As well as technical skills, graduates are expected to be able to work with diverse teams, be inclusive, good at asking questions rather than providing immediate solutions, able to challenge the status quo and to think critically, be resilient and have empathy.
“To ask someone to be able to demonstrate all those things is a very big ask,” Whitwell said, suggesting that companies needed to take greater responsibility for skills levels.
Fighting for talent
Telstra’s skills push comes as it implements its T22 strategy, designed to make the business leaner as the communications and technology sector becomes a battlefield for revenue.
By 2022, a net 8000 positions will have been lost, but 1500 new positions will have been created for employees with advanced technology skills. In the next year, 10 per cent of the existing workforce will be retrained.
With Australia facing a crippling shortage of software designers, companies such as Telstra say they are fighting with other tech businesses to hire from a small pool of skilled workers.
Telstra is a registered training organisation and can teach and give credentials to its own staff, much like a private vocational education provider. But the scale of the T22 reorganisation required a different approach, so the company sought ideas from universities. UTS came back with a package at three levels: internships and future work placements, 5G research and community impact.
Badenoch says the company needs to augment its skills base, but it can’t afford to send staff to university. Short courses, taught in-house by a university, are a good solution.
Transferable, relevant and recognised skills are the future, she says. “We recognise that skills are going to become the people’s currency.”
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Robert Bolton is the AFR’s education editor. He covers primary and secondary education, universities and training. He was a Washington Correspondent for ABC radio and later Chief European Correspondent. He presented “The Media Report” on Radio National. At The AFR Robert has worked as markets editor, Perspective editor and was editor of the Friday Review section for ten years. Connect with Robert on Twitter. Email Robert at email@example.com
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