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Education and training challenges for the Australian forestry sector: An analysis based on recent trends in university and vocational education and training (VET) completions

As in other Australian primary industry sectors, there has been increasing concern over the past decade about the skills shortages evident in the forestry sector, and the education and training needs of the sector. The forestry sector, like others in the primary industries, is characterised by relatively low levels of workforce qualifications compared with community-wide averages. We review nationally-consistent data on degree completions at postgraduate research and undergraduate levels, and course completions at vocational levels, in ?forestry? across Australia, and discuss the results in the context of the current workforce at these levels in the Australian forestry sector. Comparative data for postgraduate research and undergraduate completions were available for the years 1994 and 2005?2007, and the years 2001, 2004 and 2007, respectively. The number of research higher degree completions classified as ?forestry? in the period 2005?2007 was around 20 annually, more or less equally divided between PhD and Masters by research; this was substantially more than completions in 1994. Undergraduate pass degree completions declined by more than 50%, to a total of about 30 annually, over the seven-year period studied (2001?2007). In contrast, honours degree completions increased by about the same proportion, but from a very low base, to around eight annually. Data for total course completions in vocational education and training (VET) ?forestry? programs were available for the four?year period 2004?2007. Total completions over this period were around 2000, but declined by nearly 50% between 2004 and 2007. These data underestimate participation in the VET sector and predate the establishment of Forest Works as the sector’s Industry Skills Council. We conducted a simple workforce planning analysis based on available estimates of the workforce employed in the forestry sector and assumed career durations. On this basis, the level of supply of higher-degree research graduates in forestry?at around 20 in 2007?would seem to be of the right order, although our analysis does not account for the high level of specialisation which characterises both completions and workforce needs. In contrast, the current and projected numbers of undergraduate forestry completions, currently at 19 and projected to decline to 10 by 2013, are well below workforce replacement levels. The decline in undergraduate forestry completions is being offset to an extent by increased numbers of professional Masters graduates in forestry, at around 25 annually, but the combined number of expected undergraduate and professional Masters completions remains less than is required for sustaining the professional workforce at existing levels. The comparatively low rates of completion of vocational-level qualifications suggest that the vocational-level workforce engaged in forest growing and management, in forest operations and in primary processing will remain less formally-qualified than both the primary industry sector and the community more generally. These results emphasize the need for the forestry sector to continue to focus on, and invest in, the education and training needs of its workforce, at all levels.