Fast-tracking from school to work

Australia was a harsh place for early school leavers in the late 1980s. Many young people were dropping out of high school – only 60% completed year 12 – and jobs were hard to find. Of all males aged 15 -19 years, a massive 19% per cent were unemployed. Australia ranked second bottom on the OECD league table on vocational preparation. It was amid this arid landscape that TRAC emerged. The Training for Retail and Commerce program was developed by the Dusseldorp Skills Forum in 1989 to bridge the gap between the worlds of school and work and improve young Australians’ preparation for working life.

TRAC was a pioneering program. For the first time, vocational subjects with formally accredited workplace learning were available to students in Years 11 and 12. It was a joint partnership between schools, workplaces and TAFE which put high school students into on-the-job workplace training one day each week.
TRAC was a success and in 1994 the Federal Government launched the Australian Student Traineeship Foundation (ASTF) as mechanism for mainstreaming structured workplace learning in schools. The accompanying VET (Vocational Education and Training) subjects still run in schools across Australia.

From right to left: Kerrie Stevens, Tjerk Dusseldorp, former NSW Government Minister and WorldSkills supporter Milton Morris, and Kay Sharpe, CEO of the Hunter Valley training company.

How TRAC unfolded

TRAC was the Dusseldorp Skills Forum’s first project. Following the triumph at the international Youth Skill Olympics the previous year, WorldSkill Australia’s founder Tjerk Dusseldorp and project manager Kerrie Stevens focused the energies of the Forum on bringing innovation to vocational education in Australia. The duo were joined by the Forum’s first full-time employee, Richard Sweet, a renowned analyst with a track-record for improving vocational training, who later went on to work at the OECD in Europe. As outlined in Jane Figgis’ 2006 report Looking Back at TRAC, a lack of relevant vocational training in schools had been widely recognised at the time, but unsuccessfully addressed. Tjerk and Richard studied vocational models that had withered, and noted that failings included their “top down” approach, with little connection to employers or students. Given there was a need for a program that worked, TRAC spread rapidly. It was initially replicated locally in regional NSW, then across Tasmania and South Australia, and most other states and territories. “TRAC was the vanguard,” Kerrie said. “It really led the way. It inspired the Department of Education into offering more appropriate learning for the students who weren’t going to follow an academic career.”

Piloting TRAC: Newcastle

The Hunter region was chosen as the pilot site. As well as being a microcosm of every social economic stratum, and a mix of nationalities, at the time the Hunter was feeling the effects of major steelworks employer BHP pulling out of the region, which would soon result in an employee shift to the service industries. Of the numerous TRAC pilots in operation, the first one to transition to an “official” program was in 1991 in the Newcastle region, as shown on NBN news at the time. It comprised 37 Year 11 students from the Hunter Region. TRAC had a number of components. Each program had employers who offered placements to students, paid a fee to the TRAC program for the placement, and nominated workplace supervisors to train and assess the student. TRAC was kickstarting Australia into emulating European practice, providing multiple pathways from school into the workforce. In the early 1980s Lesley Tobin joined the Forum’s team to manage the growing number of pilots and programs across Australia. Lesley worked with the Forum for the next 18 years, spearheading the Australian Youth Mentoring Network projectand the Learning Choices expos.