Pondering Careers – Edition 40 – An argument for basic training

Welcome to another edition of Pondering Careers, where we share ideas and start conversations about pathways, futures, and careers.

Now, this week might seem a little different, so hear me out.

I want to make an argument for the introduction of basic training.

Let me clarify, I don’t want to send every school leaver into some sort of military service. What I think we need to consider is making the first stages of any post-school training (vocational or tertiary) into an introduction into the industry, where students pick up the basic skills they need and learn about a range of different pathways they could move towards next.

This would give them time to develop career clarity and confidence before moving forward, something that could increase completion rates, reduce anxiety, and, in theory, lead to improvements in earning potential and career satisfaction.

I’m also aware that there will be lots of reasons why doing something like this will be difficult, and that there would be a plethora of reasons why this won’t work, but I want to put this idea out there and see what others think – who knows, maybe I’m onto something.

What is basic training?

If you Google ‘basic training’ two things come up – the initial training we do when we join the military, and the years of basic training junior doctors complete.

In both cases, the aim is to build a foundation of skills that are used across the organisation, before students move into specialised training.

GoArmy describe this as:

“Basic Combat Training, also known as “boot camp,” is required of all new enlisted Soldiers to create a strong foundation for their Army experience and future goals. Once it’s over, your day-to-day will focus more on what’s required for your specific job…”

And the Royal Australian College of Physicians describe their basic training thus:

“This program includes a broad exposure to a comprehensive range of discipline areas that can be further developed during a subsequent Advanced Training program.”

We can define basic training as a program of education that covers fundamental skills and knowledge required for all pathways in the sector or organisation, and which also introduces the culture and process of the organisation.

Having been through basic training at the Australian Defence Force Academy myself, I would suggest it offers other benefits as well, such as a chance to build connections outside of your own specialisation, and to align your goals and values with that of the organisation.

Incidentally, it’s twenty years this year since I graduated, but ADFA still run their basic training or ‘YOFT’ in pretty much the same way now – this video is from this year:

Basic training gives you a chance to do just that – to cover the basics – without locking people in to one pathway or another.

How would this work?

The thing I keep coming back to is that we already do some of this (I’ll explain in a minute), which means that we should be able to make some tweaks to existing practices, such as how we enrol students.

Trying to get large-scale systemic change off the ground is often an exercise in futility, but we could borrow some of the practices that are already working and reshuffle them into discrete ‘basic training’ modules, giving us the desired outcome without freaking everyone out.

I also don’t think we need a universal model of basic training – it would be OK for institutions to design their own, and decide for themselves what they want everyone to know (and at what stage) rather than creating one ‘model to rule them all’.

I believe we’re already doing some of this

Think, for a moment, about the first year of an undergraduate business degree.

Chances are, there are going to be some major similarities between all the undergraduate business degrees offered by the same institution. For example, at RMIT University, they offer a Bachelor of Accounting and a Bachelor of Business (as well as a few other business-related degrees), which share an entire semester’s worth of first year courses.

Here is the Bachelor of Business:

And the Bachelor of Accounting‘s first year:

Both courses require:

  • Business Decision Making,
  • Understanding the Business Environment,
  • Business in Society, and
  • Integrated Perspectives on Business Problems

And all of these courses make sense – they cover the fundamentals you need at the start of a business degree.

Other universities have gone one step further and are already of the game, like the University of Sydney, who only offer one general business degree (in their case, the Bachelor of Commerce) which has a number of majors to choose from, all of which share the majority of their first year subjects.

Surely then, from a university standpoint we can work to combine degrees wherever possible at an undergraduate level, and avoid creating suites of degrees that contain similar first years.

Now, I know that there’s an argument that students can always change degrees if they realise they’re in the wrong one, but this isn’t always as easy as it seems. Whenever I’ve worked with higher ed students they are generally unaware of the process or that it’s even possible, and unsure how to go about a transfer without losing some of their credit.

When students transfer between degrees they also often lose credit if they’ve taken subjects that were in one degree but not in the other (this has certainly happened to me), which could deter some students from changing even if they realise they’re in the wrong degree.

We could do the same with apprenticeships

As an example, if I lived in NSW and wanted to become an Electrician, I could choose from eight different Cert III courses at TAFE NSW in the Electrotechnology stream, all of which share a number of basic units.

These include:

  • Apply work health and safety regulations, codes and practices in the workplace
  • Fabricate, assemble and dismantle utilities industry components
  • Use drawings, diagrams, schedules, standards, codes and specifications
  • Licence to perform dogging (if someone knows what this is can they please explain)
  • Solve problems in magnetic and electromagnetic devices

Don’t ask me what most of these things actually teach, but since they’re in all of the courses I’m going to assume they’re basic, foundation skills.

Many of these units also appear in the Cert II or ‘Career Start‘ course, which suggests that, with a bit of a rejig, all students could technically start with the Cert II units before deciding at that point which way they want to specialise. This is, after all, what the pre-apprenticeship courses are designed for, so perhaps all students could be required to start with the Cert II?

So (aside from the fact that we currently ask students to find a specific employer before commencing an apprenticeship, which locks them in to a set career path) why can’t all commencing Electrotechnology apprentices learn the same things in an initial six-month basic training course?

During this course, they could learn more about the industry and explore a range of pathways, before locking themselves in.

Towards the end of the course, they could then be matched with employers in the apprenticeship they want to pursue.

Perhaps if we set this up we could do something about the vocational completion rates, which are languishing below 50% for Cert III qualifications, as there is some evidence that an incorrect career choice (evidenced by loss of interest in the apprenticeship) is a predictor of non-completion (Powers & Watt, 2021).

They need to be able to choose a specialisation after the course

One key factor that we need to talk about, before we move into the benefits, is that this only works when students are free to either choose or change their pathway at the end of the basic training.

It doesn’t work if you put them all into the same training then tell them they have to go down the path they picked earlier, in fact, you could even increase their dissatisfaction with their career if you force them into something they now know isn’t right for them.

Going back to my own experiences, when I was at ADFA those of us in the Air Force had to choose our jobs before we arrived, but the Army cadets didn’t choose (or find out) their specialisations until they left RMC, four years after they started.

The Navy cadets (midshipmen) went to sea for a year before they got to ADFA, where they experienced a range of jobs and learnt basic skills.

This meant that by the time the Army and Navy cadets had finished, they had experienced all of the different pathways and could make an informed choice about what they did next.

Now, I don’t have access to the vast majority of the data that I would need to make any observations about the long term impacts of this decision, but I will share one thing.

This is a table from the Defence Annual Report showing the number of separations of officers from the three services:

I only looked at officer data, since we’re talking about officers going though ADFA and RMC, but, on face value, we can see that the RAAF has an officer retention problem that is disproportionate to the other services, and also not reflected in it’s retention of other ranks (RAAF only had a 21% share of voluntary separations for other ranks, compared to 37% for officers).

Does this prove that locking people in before they start a course of training is a bad idea? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly interesting, and possibly something for ADF Careers to take a look at.

What are the benefits of a basic training component?

Giving young people more room to grow into their careers, without locking them in, is always a good idea in my opinion. We change A LOT between the ages of 15 and 25, and making kids pick a pathway in their mid-teens is fraught with danger.

Here are my broad arguments for incorporating an element of basic training into your courses:

  1. Students can get started without narrowing their options. This makes it a hundred times easier to take that first step, because it removes all the pressure of being ‘locked in’.
  2. Basic training can ensure that everyone is starting from the same place, with the same level of basic knowledge and understanding of the sector. It essentially gets everyone on the same page, with the side benefit that people will be more likely to meet and connect with people outside of their eventual specific stream, creating a broader network for the industry.
  3. Career exploration and work experience can be ‘built in’. In fact, any basic training program is going to include a high-level overview of the industry and the variety of jobs it contains, but this kind of learning may be skipped when students jump straight into something specific. Indeed, there may be a case to exclude this information for students who are locked in, to reduce the likelihood of them realising they should actually be somewhere else.
  4. Basic training can reduce anxiety. It’s in the name – you know that you’re going to start with the basics, and that you’re not expected to arrive with a level of knowledge, and you also know you don’t need to make any solid decisions at this stage. Anxiety is a huge factor for our young people, and anything we can do to reduce levels of anxiety is a good thing.
  5. It could lead to improved career satisfaction and engagement. Dr Michael Openshaw shared a great report from the OECD earlier this week which looked at some of the factors which indicate teenage career readiness, and that found that career certainty and alignment were key factors in determining outcomes for young people. It’s possible to assume that students who have had more time to explore and more exposure to work will be able to develop greater career certainty and alignment, leading in turn to improved outcomes.

And I’m sure there are more benefits I’ve missed, in particular for employers and training organisations (because I tend to think student-first).

I’m really interested to dive deeper into this topic, particularly to see if exposure to some form of basic training increases completion and retention rates.

If you have any literature on this topic, or would like to share your own experiences then I’d love to hear them.

And as always, thanks for being part of our community.

You can read previous editions of Pondering Careers here.

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