Skills urgency – and how we can use foundation skills to address it

Skills urgency – and how we can use foundation skills to address it

‘Skills Urgency’ is the title of the Australian Industry Group’s most recent report on the skill needs of Australian employees.  The report aims to prompt discussion about big changes the AIG suggests are needed to build employee skills in Australia.  The AIG states that:

“A cocktail of factors is converging to create an urgency to skills formation and development.”

AIG, 2021, Skills urgency: Transforming Australia’s workplaces, key considerations.

Read the complete report here.


What might this mean for vocational trainers?

I think we vocational trainers can help adult learners gain the skills they need for today’s constantly evolving world of work by focusing on the foundation skills learners will need to do the jobs we are helping them prepare for.  We should focus on foundation skills when:

  • explaining or demonstrating a work activity
  • designing and facilitating practice activities
  • giving feedback
  • assessing their competence.


What are foundation skills?


I define foundation skills as, the skills people need to do a job.


When I hear people speak about foundation skills, they most often speak of language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills.  But foundation skills include both:

  • language, literacy and numeracy skills, and
  • employability skills.

And here is where things start to get tricky.  In Australia, LLN skills are clearly described in the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF), but employability skills are described in different ways by different people.  This makes it hard to get clarity on what employability skills are, and how to train and assess them.

Some popular terms we see used to describe employability skills include:

  • 21st-century skills
  • soft skills
  • essential skills
  • cross-functional skills
  • key competencies
  • core skills.

Personally, I use the Core Skills for Work (CSfW) developmental framework to identify employability skills that my learners may need.

The graphic below shows the full range of foundation skills:

People need the full range of foundation skills

The Skills Urgency report identifies “a positive attitude and soft skills” (pp.19-20) as the most important factors in recruitment:

  • A positive attitude relates to the LLN core skill of learning
  • Soft skills relate to core employability skills such as the ability to work collaboratively, solve problems, or create and innovate.
To help our learners succeed in today’s constantly evolving world of work, we must teach the full range of foundation skills—that is, both LLN and employability skills.


SO why aren’t we teaching the full range of foundation skills?

I think there are two reasons for this:

First, people wrongly think that foundation skills don’t apply to them

When people think of foundation skills, they think of ‘low level’ and may wrongly assume that their learners don’t need explicit foundation skill instruction.  I often hear trainers tell me, “My learners don’t have any LLN gaps, therefore LLN and foundation skills aren’t relevant to me.”   We tend not to associate these ‘low level’ skills with the far sexier idea of ’21st-century skills’, or ‘skills for the modern workplace’.

Everyone needs and uses foundation skills to do their job – some jobs require high foundation skill levels, and some jobs require lower levels of skill.


A 15-year-old working at a fast-food restaurant needs oral communication skills to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”   A hostage negotiator will need far high higher levels of oral communication skills to negotiate a peaceful resolution.  Both need oral communication to do their jobs, just at different levels, and both would benefit if their trainer could explicitly teach the oral communication skills they will need to do their jobs.

Foundation skills are context-based. That is, the foundation skills people will need for one context are not the same as the foundation skills needed for another context.  For example, I have an English degree and was previously an English teacher.  So, I’d like to hope that my language skills are reasonably high and are sufficient for many work contexts.  However, if I wanted to change careers and become an accountant, I would have a language gap—I don’t understand the language of accounting or when, where, or how to use it.  In this context, my language skills are not sufficient.


Second, the Cert IV TAE doesn’t cover the full range of foundation skills

The Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (TAE for short), requires all participants to complete the unit, TAELLN411 Address adult language, literacy and numeracy skills.

TAELLN411 helps us to learn how to teach LLN-based foundation skills but doesn’t cover employability-based foundation skills.  This is a bit like icing half a cake.


More information

LLN and VET Meeting Place site

The LLN and VET Meeting Place website has information and links to resources to help trainers incorporate a focus on foundation skills into their vocational training programs.  I hope you find it useful.