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Ian Curry is the Chair of the Manufacturing and Engineering Industry Reference Committee. He is the National Coordinator: Skills, Training & Apprenticeships with the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU).


Tell us a little about yourself and your industry experience?

Following a Fabrication apprenticeship and a little over a decade working on construction, general fabrication and heavy plant maintenance, and in some supervisory roles with Australian National Railways, I left the rail industry to work with my union. I worked on a series of Commonwealth Department of Industrial Relations funded projects with the Metal Trades Federation of Unions and the Metal Trades Industry Association of Australia that were associated with the roll out of the Structural Efficiency and Award Restructuring agenda’s in the Metal Industry in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Those projects, conducted jointly by unions and employer organisations, underpinned the industry’s approach to implementing measures to improve industry productivity and efficiency through skill related classification and pay structures which in turn drove the development of the first Metal & Engineering Competency Standards. I worked on the Model Implementation Project that validated competency standards across a broad range of manufacturing and engineering companies across the country as a precursor to their inclusion in the Award as the mean of determining classification and pay rates for workers in the industry. This work culminated in the first set of nationally endorsed industry competency standards in Australia.

After a 4 year term as President of the AMWU SA Branch, I took up a role in the AMWU’s National Office with national responsibility for managing the AMWU’s engagement with the national training system and the structures that underpin it. I’ve had a long history of engagement with the training system and have served on many state and national regulatory and advisory bodies associated with the training system.

In 2013, I was honoured to be nominated for the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Minister for Employment, Higher Education and Skills. The nomination was recommended and endorsed by the South Australian Training and Skills Commission. Introduced in 2011, the Award is the pre-eminent national award for the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector and recognises candidates who have made a fundamental and lasting contribution to the VET sector through their service and commitment.

Why are you passionate about vocational education and training?

Anyone that has completed a trade apprenticeship, or seen how vocational education and training can transform people’s lives can’t help but admire and support an education and training system that puts building the skills, knowledge and employment options of its students at the centre. Australia owes a lot to VET in terms of growing social and economic capability. For the many of us that grew up in and around Elizabeth SA who had no interest in a university education, an apprenticeship supported by our local TAFE was truly transformational.

The Australian VET system, grounded in competency defined by industry, is highly regarded around the world and, notwithstanding its weaknesses, is still well placed to support us as we confront a challenging and exciting future.

What’s the next big thing in your industry?

There’s a lot of talk about future of manufacturing and the challenges that lie ahead, but manufacturing in Australia has never been easy. With all its challenges, somehow we have managed to drag ourselves up and face the future.

The recipe for success has always involved the same things. Leadership, determination, innovation and, of course, the skills of our workforce!

This time will be no different. Advanced Manufacturing is nothing new. New skills, new technologies and increasing convergence of technologies, as well as new forms of work organisation and job design will evolve to meet the challenge and so will the leadership and determination to succeed that we have always managed to summon when required. Manufacturing is in a constant state of change, but this time perhaps it will be the pace of that change that will test us.

What are the emerging skills needs in your industry?

As a nation, we are really good at practical, applied skills. I think the challenge will be how we address the need for thinking, communicating, collaborating and problem solving as well as integrating the practical skills we need. We are not great at carving out the time for creative thinking and innovation, but that will be crucial to getting the future of manufacturing right.

How can we make the training system better?

I think there is a risk of overcomplicating our training system. Industry needs to be given the time and resources to lead the thinking on where we take the training system, and the priorities that are set for it going forward. Our funding arrangements and our Federation make that more complex. Leadership of the system is a contested space as budgets and industry needs are sometimes heading in different directions. There is a lot to admire about the way that many European and Scandinavian countries separate debates about public funding of VET from industry leadership of the design of training products.

Whatever may evolve out of the debate about the future of the vocational education and training system, industry leadership and high quality training and assessment by professional teachers and trainers must remain non-negotiable.