Competency-Based Training: end to apprenticeships as we know them?

John Richard Elder AM PhD

This paper explores industry resistance to the demands exerted by the Australian national and most state governments for vocational training to become competency based. Although most industry representatives acknowledge the value of competency-based training, on the basis that it is pursued within an appropriately structured system with competent assessors, current governmental pressure on industry to adopt competency-based apprenticeships is viewed by many with alarm, and has attracted fierce opposition.

According to Chappell (1996), the professed political rationale for competency-based training and assessment was the need to raise skill levels and work standards in Australia. He also argued that: ‘competency-standards development was central to the Federal Government’s Industrial Reform Agenda’; that competency standards were regarded by some as the vehicle for achieving employment and training reforms; and, as multi-purpose instruments, would influence all aspects of vocational education and training and facilitate workplace reform’ (pp.59-61).

Some commentators agree with Chappell that the priority given to the economic and industrial reform agenda in Australia in the early 1990s, (Pitman et al 2000) ‘including the development of competency standards, was not reflected in any priority being given to the development of new competency-based education and training models’. Competency based training (CBT) was often set against the perceived failings of standards setting and assessment practices in TAFEs and universities (at p.10).

The Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney (2012) observed that no consensus currently exists amongst vocational education and training (VET) practitioners and policy makers on which activities should be labelled ‘competency-based’ (at p.5). Bowden (2013) observed that competency-based education was always the subject of argument, with extreme positions being adopted. In commenting on a 1996 survey, Maxwell (1997 pp.4-15) observed that there appeared to be some ambiguity about the nature and extent of implementation of competency based assessment throughout the vocational education and training sector in Australia,  ‘ranging from 30 percent to 80 percent in the TAFE sector and … less than 10 percent in the non-TAFE sector’ (at p.6).

The Housing Industry Association (2013) referred to the fact that development of competency based progression under the Manufacturing Award involved a process of significant consultation and agreement at industry, national and state levels to implement and support the system (at p.26). Those comments highlight the fact that the NSW TAFE Commission Board (2006) had done little since 2006 to focus its competency-based attention on industries in NSW other than the manufacturing (at pp.1 and 2).

These issues will be addressed from the perspective of the building industry in New South Wales (NSW) and, while criticising governmental focus on competence-based training in the face of little industry support, will consider the likely threat to the status of apprenticeships in the long-term.

A brief outline of the development of the NSW apprenticeship system

Coolican (1989) observed that, despite the relationship between master and apprentice in the NSW colony having been the subject of various acts of Parliament, interest in apprenticeships did not become widespread until the passage of the (NSW) Apprentices Act, 1901. Builders, however, were able to use less skilled workers on simple tasks and to employ improvers – those who had acquired limited skills on the job and incrementally added to them (at p.51).

Members of the Master Builders Association of New South Wales (MBA) were critical of trades education from the late 1890s due to the poor technical training facilities available. They favoured  the practical application of theoretical principles and oversight by leaders in the field of ‘architecture, engineering, surveying and building’.

In 1904, the issue of apprenticeship was again raised by an MBA member who warned that technical education was, within reasonable bounds, of ‘primary necessity, but to outrun discretion and to allow the public mind to suppose that nothing is needed beyond the training which a lad receives at the Technical College, Sydney would lead to disastrous results.’ MBA members agreed that the Australian system of apprenticeship training compared unfavourably with the close relationship that had been fostered ‘in the old country’ and called for the introduction of a system of indenture and compulsory attendance of apprentices at technical classes (Elder 2013 pp. 54-55). The NSW Industrial Arbitration Court temporarily resolved the issue on 23 October 1905 in the Carpenters and Joiners’ award, which embodied the form of indenture apprenticeship promoted by the MBA and provided for technical training (at p.55).

Nevertheless, the MBA continued to complain about the lack of competent tradesmen, promoting an apprenticeship system administered by a Board comprising employers and employees, administered by the Minister in conjunction with the Technical College. Their lobbying efforts were rewarded when the NSW Government eventually invited the MBA to nominate three representatives to an Advisory Committee for building trades classes at the Technical College (at pp.55-56).

The (NSW) Industrial Arbitration (Amendment) Act 1932 placed apprentices in NSW under an Apprenticeship Council chaired by an Apprenticeship Commissioner.1 In 1934 the Commissioner and the Apprenticeship Council introduced trainee apprenticeships into NSW, following an application to allow learners to be engaged in the metal industry without having to enter articles of indenture. The Council extended the trainee apprenticeship system to the building trades, which reacted positively to trainee apprenticeships (at p.108) and by 1936-1937 the number of building trades trainee apprentices outstripped the number of indentured apprentices by 193% (at p.109).

Current events

The Fair Work Commission in early 2012 established a number of Full Benches to conduct a review of all modern awards, and on 22 August 2013, one of those benches handed down its decision on a number of issues related to Apprentices, Trainees and Juniors, adopting a recommendation (no.14) of the Expert Panel Report (2011) that barriers to competency based wage progression (CBWP) in modern awards be removed. (Boulton J. et al (2013). Not all parties agreed, as the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Contractors Association of NSW (MPMCA), supported by the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), applied to the Full Bench to insert a clause into the Plumbing and Fire Sprinklers Award 2010 which would expand the current ban against an apprentice working under any system of payment by results to also preclude progress through pay rates based on the demonstration of competency as determined by the Registered Training Organisation. The MPMCA had good reason to challenge that decision as the bureaucracy of the NSW State Government was pushing industry generally towards converting apprenticeships to a competency-based system.

Under the (NSW) Apprenticeship and Traineeship Act 2001 (the Act), the Commissioner for Vocational Training can approve the completion of an apprenticeship or traineeship based on demonstration of competency prior to the completion date of the training contract. Certainly, there have been occasions on which an apprenticeship has been declared completed in the NSW building and plumbing industries on the basis of competency. However, this has generally been pursued as an alternative to a final year apprentice being made redundant due to economic downturn. Similarly, the apprenticeship term can be extended to compensate for training time lost for any reason.

Despite most NSW apprenticeships and traineeships being for a stated nominal term, State Training Services of the NSW Department of Education and Communities, the body that administers the Act and registers and monitors apprenticeships and traineeships in NSW, produced an undated document that commences with the claim: Apprenticeship and traineeship training in NSW is competency based.

One union that supports competency-based apprenticeships is the Construction arm of the CFMEU, whose members include many who were trained outside of the apprenticeship system as ‘improvers’ (as occurred in the late 1800s) and work in various areas of the building industry as carpenters. The CFMEU (2013) sought variations to the wage rates for junior apprentices in the Building and Construction General On-site Award 2010 and the Joinery and Building Trades Award 2010, to include a competency based wage progression component. In support of its application, it cited the Manufacturing and Associated Industries and Occupations Award 2010 which has competency based wage progression and had applied the process in a predecessor award, the Metal Industry Award, since 2006 (at pp. 32-34).

The Workplace Research Centre (2012) cited research in the United Kingdom showing successful implementation of a competency-based progression model which comprises both pay and training elements, is reliant on two key predicating factors. The first is a well-established competency framework and the second a proven performance management system that is trusted by the workforce. Each of those factors lies squarely within the internal structures of the individual workplace (at pp.12 and 13).

Current problems with competency-based training and wage progression

Competency-based training of apprentices requires the establishment of clearly defined skills that will form part of the curriculum. This invites criticism directed at the Taylorist and behaviourist roots of CBT as it focuses on task-orientated performance criteria, supplemented by feedback from the organisation to bring about the desired outcome by the learner (Kodiappan 2011, at p.5). Sinclair Bell et al (2000) cite Blunden (1996), who argued that operationalizing complex and/or abstract tasks into measurable discrete units can trivialize the craft inherent in many tasks (at p.7).

Grayson et al (1999) observed that the outcomes for vocational education and training programs are specified in training packages developed by national industry training advisory bodies, some  components of which have been endorsed  by the National Training Framework Committee (at p.5). Bowden (1997) suggested that if outcomes can be expressed in precise, observable terms, these can then be used to set clear goals for educational programmes (at p.4), but the issue of assessing the results of competency-based training attracts varying views. Ashenden (1990), for example, wrote (at p.9): ‘In Australia assessment has usually been available only at the end of a course of study or training and has frequently been so imprecise that guarantees of standards have in fact depended as much or more on the fact that the course has been completed as on the results of assessment’. Simons (2001) observed that ‘At the heart of much of this debate there has appeared to be confusion over the relationship between competency and performance’ (p.16). Booth (2009) drew on the results of two projects which examined current attitudes and practices of industry representatives and practitioners nationally and in NSW about the quality of assessments, finding that great confusion still existed about key features of competency based assessment (at pp.1 and 2).

The threat to apprenticeships

While Bowden (1996) suggests that some elements of competency-based education have clear parallels with Taylorist approaches and may indeed have been influenced by Taylor’s work, (p. 3) it is the deskilling concepts of the labour process theory developed by Braverman and others in the 1970s that concern me.

Proposals by the Construction Division of the CFMEU and the Fair Work Commission to implement competency-based wage progression without the involvement of employers who will have to deal with that process at the workplace is of concern. Indeed the history of that union – and its predecessor, the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) – shows that many of its members who work as carpenters have not served an apprenticeship. The Workplace Research Centre (2012 at p.32) advises:

‘Researchers note that delivery of competency-based progression relies on a disaggregation of skill which is ‘modularised’, ‘flexible’ and ‘atomised’ …. Others contend that the creation of individual competency units will ultimately leave skills ‘fragmented’ at their core.

It is the fragmentation of skills that causes concern, as it opens the way for a building industry of skilled process workers rather than skilled tradesmen. Despite the stringent requirements on electrical and plumbing apprenticeships at this time, the ‘dumbing down’ of some trades that has been supported by governments eager to claim the achievement of a skilled workforce, could place these important trades at risk.

John Elder was employed by the Master Builders Association of NSW from 1972, first as an Industrial Officer; then from 1976 as Deputy Executive Director; and, then from 1993 until 1996 as Executive Director when he retired. He was appointed a Member and Commissioner of the Industrial Relations Commission in 1998 and continued until 2000 when he reached the mandatory retirement age. He is the author of A History of The Master Builders Association of NSW – The First Hundred and Thirty Years, based on his PhD Thesis of August 2007.

John Elder was employed by the Master Builders Association of NSW from 1972, first as an Industrial Officer; then from 1976 as Deputy Executive Director; and, then from 1993 until 1996 as Executive Director when he retired. He was appointed a Member and Commissioner of the Industrial Relations Commission in 1998 and continued until 2000 when he reached the mandatory retirement age. He is the author of A History of The Master Builders Association of NSW – The First Hundred and Thirty Years, based on his PhD Thesis of August 2007.


1    In 1933, James McIntyre (President of the MBA in 1917) was appointed Apprenticeship Commissioner.


Ashenden, D. The Recognition of Vocational Training and Learning, report commissioned by the Employment and Skills Formation Council, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra. 1990, P.9

Boulton J., Harrison SDP and Roe C., Modern Awards Review 2012—Apprentices, Trainees and Juniors – (AM2012/18, AM2012/64, AM2012/107, AM2012/109, AM2012/110, AM2012/127, AM2012/128, AM2012/129, AM2012/135, AM2012/140, AM2012/141, AM2012/152, AM2012/155, AM2012/157, AM2012/159, AM2012/183, AM2012/247), Fair Work Commission,  Sydney, 22 August 2013 – Clause 295

Booth, Robin Competency Based Assessment — One minute wonder or here to stay? Practitioners’ attitudes to competency based assessment and the complexities of implementation, Vocational Education and Assessment Centre, TAFE NSW

Bowden, Professor John A., (1997) Competency-Based Education–Neither a Panacea nor a Pariah, TEND 97 conference, Abu Dhabi, viewed 16 October 2013 < tend/018bowden.htm

CFMEU (Construction and General Division), Submission in Support of Common Matters Applications, in Matter No.: AM2012/18 and others Modern Awards Review 2012 – Apprentices, Trainees and Juniors. 31st January 2013

Chappell, C. S. 1996, ‘Quality and competency standards’, Prospect, vol. 11, no. 1, May, pp. 59–61

Coolican, Alice M. A History of Industrial Relations in the Sydney Building Trades, 1870-1914, A Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of New South Wales, December 1989 p.51

Dickson, M. & Bloch, B. Not just falling over the line? A snapshot of competency based assessment, Adelaide, NCVER 1999.

Elder, J.R. A History of the Master Builders Association of NSW – the first one hundred and thirty years,   McPherson’s Printing, Sydney, 2013 pp.54 and 55

Expert Panel, A shared responsibility: Apprenticeships for the 21st Century, 31 January 2011.

Fair Work (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 2009, Sch. 5 Item 6 – Review of all Modern Awards (other than modern enterprise and State PS awards) after first 2 years.

Grayson, Carolyn & Crowe, Leanne (Swinburne University of Technology TAFE, HawthornVictoria) Defining and Refining Training Packages, A Paper presented at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association Conference, University of Western Australia, Perth. September 29 to October 2, 1999.

Housing Industry Association, Submission to the Fair Work Australia on the Modern Awards Review 2012, 25 February 2013

Kodiappan, Ramu. Challenges affecting the integration of competency-based training at the higher levels of the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications – National Qualifications Framework, 7th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning, Shanghai, China. 2011

Master Plumbers and Mechanical Contractors Association of NSW, Submission to Commissioner Roe, via Email, 25 September 2013.

Maxwell, G.S. ‘Competency based assessment and tertiary selection: Background context and issues’, Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(3), 4-15.

Pitman, J. A., Bell, E. J. and Fyfe, I. K. Assumptions and Origins of Competency-Based Assessment: New challenges for teachers, Board of Senior Secondary School Studies, Queensland 2000

Roe, Commissioner Explanatory Note – Transitional review of awards – applications relating to apprentices, trainees and junior rates – non-common matters, AM2012/199 17 September 2013a

Roe, Commissioner Draft Statement – draft summary of outcomes of the 19 September 2013 conference, 20 September 2013.

Simons, Michele Behind Closed Doors: TAFE Teachers and The Implementation of Competency-Based Training in South Australia, A thesis submitted for the Doctor of Philosophy, University of South Australia, September 2001

Sinclair-Bell, Jill and Mitchell, Robin. Competency-Based Versus Traditional Cohort based Technical Education: A Comparison of Students’ Perceptions, York University 2000

State Training Services, NSW Department of Education and Communities, Completion, competency based completion, trade recognition, State Training Website undated.

TAFE NSW, Submission to the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee Inquiry into the State of Australia’s Manufactured Export and Import Competing Base, Now and Beyond the Resources Boom. 2006