When is an apprentice competent?

When is an apprentice competent?

Competence is a much used word in the training sector. Competency standards are the building blocks of the vocational training system. Every qualification, be it for an apprentice bricklayer or an air traffic controller, is made up of competency standards that need to be achieved.

But what does it mean, especially for apprentices who work in the trade they are learning about at the same time?

There is a commonly held view that has gained strength over the years that competency standards are nothing more than the curriculum taught by training providers. They used to be called modules, now they have another name. The competency standard lists the things that need to be taught for that subject, and tell the trainer what they should look for when they conduct their assessment. That’s sort of right, but it’s not what competency standards are.

Competency standards are the industry benchmark for a given task. They are developed by industry members and describe everything that task encompasses in a workplace. This includes the practical application of a skill, the background knowledge needed to understand why things are done in a given way, any legislation or guidelines that may have an impact and how it could be assessed.

Most importantly, the definition of competency standards includes the ability to perform these tasks to the standard of performance expected in the workplace.

So how does a trainer assess whether someone is competent?

Assessment is all about gathering evidence that someone can perform a task. The standards themselves will list performance criteria, required skills and required knowledge. These are the benchmarks. The trainer will use different types of evidence for each standard, perhaps setting an exam, getting an apprentice to complete a task, and asking follow up questions. This evidence should cover all of the requirements in the standard before the trainer completes the assessment.

This is all good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the task can be performed to the standard expected in the workplace. Most of the standards say they should be assessed on-the-job but they nearly all have a ‘get out’ clause that allows a training provider to simulate a workplace environment. This is the TAFE or RTO workshop.

It is much easier (and cheaper) for a trainer to do their assessments in-house rather than visit apprentices at work. Most also don’t bother to ask workplace supervisors about performance, even though this can be good evidence that can contribute to assessments.

So in the end, the ‘simulated work environment’ of the RTO workshop is the evidence used to demonstrate competence to a “standard of performance expected in the workplace”. How close is a workshop to a real working environment? The machines and tools will be similar but not much else will be.

For apprentices, RTOs are required to ‘confirm’ competence with the employer before finally signing them off. This will often be a letter containing a list of competency standard titles. There will be no performance criteria, no list of required skills and no list of required knowledge. Once it’s confirmed, the RTO has evidence to show that the employer agrees that the apprentice can competently perform these tasks at work.

Some employers complain that they didn’t realise what they were signing, even though that signature might mean the apprentice wage rises to the next pay level or the apprenticeship is completed.

RTOs should be doing more to help employers with their role in confirming competence. A title of a standard can be descriptive but it won’t cover everything. What should employers be looking out for? Are there critical bits they might have missed?

Apprentice Progression can help businesses manage the ‘confirmation’ process and other aspects of competency based wage progression and completion. Visit Apprentice Progression and fill in the online form for a prompt call back, or contact Peter on 0437 305 524 for more information.

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