The only comprehensive study of Tasmanian parents’ attitudes to education I am aware of was commissioned by the TCCI in 2008. The study did not find that Tasmanian parents – the working majority - do not value higher education, it found that they fear it. They fear higher education because they believed there are no jobs in their community or Tasmania which require higher education, and therefore pursuing higher education would mean their children leave Tasmania for employment opportunities elsewhere, threatening the family and community fabric which working Tasmanians value so highly.
The report also found that the working majority of Tasmanians valued hard work which they defined as physical, blue collar or service work rather than intellectual work. This working majority had a high work ethic and measured success as working hard in their community, looking to their community for future opportunities.
The study also found that the working majority did not associate higher levels of education with the ability to find employment in their community, therefore they did not deem it necessary. The report found that the working majority were motivated by their personal environment of community, lifestyle, family and friends rather than more successful careers.
Fast forward 13 years, and the jobs landscape has changed. Of the current jobs in Tasmania, less than a third require a bachelor degree or higher qualification, while more than two in five (44%) require no more than a certificate II.
Not only has the Tasmanian workforce been polarising over time - growth has been in high and low skill jobs, the number of jobs considered to be entry level, requiring certificate III or IV vocational qualifications for trade and technical jobs has been declining, now around 12% of the total workforce. In addition, these jobs are experiencing changes in content and skill requirements, evolving from physical labour dominated work, to the need for higher level numeracy, literacy and technological skills, not previously considered necessary.
In its The Modern Worker, A Guide to What Employers Want, the Business Council of Australia outlines the minimum capability requirements for trade and technical jobs which include occupation specific reading comprehension, writing and oral communication skills; numeracy capabilities of measuring and calculation, data recording and interpretation and cost estimation; and extend to include analytical and digital capabilities as well as the generic ‘soft skills’ which receive so much attention.
A range of current research reports also indicate that young people today are aspiring for jobs they have little chance of securing. These reports also confirm that community remains a strong factor in education and work decision making processes, particularly for young men, yet our education and social systems are not preparing our young people for the future of work.
Historically, students who have struggled academically have been encouraged to pursue vocational education and training and trade or services related employment rather than higher education and associated opportunities. With expanding skill requirements in VET related jobs, the polarisation of the workforce and the shift to services-oriented work, many young Tasmanians can no longer rely on gaining meaningful employment in hard, physical work to sustain their much-valued lifestyles in their community.
Given the increasing literacy and numeracy demands across all occupational skill levels, whether vocational or professional jobs, we need to ensure that all Tasmanian students meet the expected benchmarks for reading, writing and numeracy by grade 7 so that they are able to engage in the wider school curriculum and successfully complete their schooling to pursue other opportunities.
In 2019, the latest available data, of the students starting grade 7, 1 in 5 were at or below the National Minimum Standard for reading and numeracy, 1 in 4 were at or below the Standard for spelling as well as grammar and punctuation and 1 in 3 (34.9%) were at or below the Standard for writing, meaning they were unable to express their thoughts, knowledge or understanding in written form with the appropriate structure, vocabulary and cohesion – critical skills for participating in the wider school curriculum and future employment.
Critically, for those students whose parents were in low skilled jobs or not in paid work at all, over half did not exceed the expected Standard for writing. Over a third of those with parents in low skilled jobs did not exceed the reading or numeracy benchmarks, while less than half of those with no working parents met the benchmarks.
Jobs have changed and skills within jobs have changed but the aspirations of our young people have not and connection to community remains strong. Strong work ethic and values also remain, as do aspirations to contribute meaningfully to society, however, our young Tasmanians need much stronger educational foundations to achieve their aspirations. These skills and knowledge sit squarely in the responsibility of our education system, not with the parents who have not benefited from a good education themselves.
If we want our young Tasmanians to successfully complete their schooling, pursue higher education and aspire to higher-skilled jobs, then we also need to be better at creating those higher-skilled jobs in Tasmania and our regions. To do that, we need vision and a strategic industry policy.
See more about the impact of lack of supply of jobs on educational aspirations here.
For more on the values, attitudes to education and career aspirations of young people see this report for the Tasmanian Seafood Industry Council).
An edited version of this Opinion Piece was published as a Talking Point in the Mercury on 14 July 2021.