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“Success with Defence equals success for TAFE.”: Phil Paterson

It’s no surprise that some of the highest paid workers got where they are today thanks to higher education. However, a university degree isn’t the only pathway to success. Vocational Education and Training, or more commonly VET, turns out some of the highest paid graduates, according to a 2017 report from the Skilling Australia Foundation.

Phil Paterson, CEO of Wodonga Institute of TAFE

Not only will a TAFE qualification take less time to complete – typically six months to two years versus a university’s three-year minimum – its graduates also start earning more, and sooner.

The median starting wage for VET graduates comes in at A$56,000. That’s A$2,000 more than university graduates. Yet, according to that same report, one in five Australians believe VET graduates earn less than university graduates, and four out of five parents would prefer their children go to a university instead of a vocational institute.

These attitudes have created an uneven playing field, where higher education is valued more highly than vocational education. It’s time to set the record straight and rewrite that narrative once and for all. And Wodonga Institute of TAFE CEO Phil Paterson is just the man to do it.

“There have been some recent reports about the stigma associated with the VET sector, and how the school system and parents focus on pushing universities. We need to change that thinking so the choice is an equal one for students,” Phil explains. “It’s going to require a multi-pronged approach, including government as well as local responses. But I see it as a key opportunity for the VET sector.”

Far from university’s dowdy cousin, Wodonga Institute of TAFE consistently moulds the next generation of skilled workers with practical, hands-on experience in many fields ranging from nursing to engineering, graphic design and more. Thanks to the recent free TAFE initiative by the Victorian government, more people than ever can see the TAFE difference for themselves.

“Our focus is really about making sure we are building success through learning,” Phil says. “We take our provision of VET education very seriously. We are making sure our students get successful outcomes in both education and future employment. It’s something we’re very committed to. Vocational education plays a vital role in our communities and in supplying the workforce of the future. It’s important that we all #LoveYourTAFE.”

“We are making sure our students get successful outcomes in both education and future employment. It’s something we’re committed to.”

This 16-year Albury-Wodonga local has a genuine love for his community that’s woven into everything he does. “Outside work, I’m in the Splitters Creek Rural Fire Brigade – I drive the truck, am a crew leader and the President,” he shares. “So, for me, I see TAFE as an extension of how I reinvest in my local community.”

Unsurprisingly, Phil’s also a humble leader. His leadership style can be defined more by what he doesn’t do than what he does. “I’m certainly not autocratic or hierarchical,” he says.

Phil Paterson, CEO of Wodonga Institute of TAFE

“I like to give our staff the accountability and the responsibility to do what they do best in a collaborative, open-door style. At the moment, I’m doing my best to remove silos within the organisation to make sure the communication can flow freely and the great ideas from our 600 staff are captured and harvested,” he continues. “It’s much better than assuming I have all the best ideas in the world because, I can assure you, I don’t.”

Built from the local community, Wodonga TAFE’s workforce is small but mighty. They care about the community and the students as if they were family; in return, Wodonga TAFE is passionate about investing in them. In fact, the Institute was even named Large Training Provider of the Year at the Australian Training Awards in 2018.

“It was a huge achievement for us,” Phil beams. “We have a really good culture in our workforce. Our staff are energetic about ensuring we deliver services to support our community. While we’re not a big metro TAFE, we are a major employer for our area. And we want to ensure that Wodonga TAFE is truly seen as an employer of choice.”

“It’s important that we all #loveyourTAFE.”

Through investment in staff development programs, recognition and rewards, along with flexible work arrangements, Wodonga TAFE aims to do this well. “It’s important to have the environment and processes in place to make us an attractive place to work,” he says. “We’re always willing to change and be more innovative in how we do things. It’s a key advantage of our culture.”

With innovation in mind, Phil, who was internally promoted to CEO from his five-year stint as Wodonga TAFE’s CFO/COO in July 2019, started shaking things up right off the bat. Roughly two months into his new role, he began a solar initiative that uses sustainability to spark learning.

“We implemented 600 kilowatts of rooftop solar power in collaboration with Procurement Australia and Mondo Power, using microgrid technology. This allows us to manage how the power is shifted behind the meter,” he explains.

“So on a sunny day, the students can see how much power we’re generating. We’re providing that visibility to educate them about the concept of renewables. For me, it’s an opportunity to kick off a new culture of sustainability in the TAFE.”

And it’s something he’s really proud of. “It’s a powerful step forward from a sustainability perspective,” he says. “Not only does it reduce our costs, which is obviously important, but it also has a technology component to it that’s quite advanced. And it keeps our eyes open to other sustainability initiatives such as reduced water and power consumption or even waste disposal and things of that nature.

“We all play a role in trying to protect our planet for future generations,” Phil continues. “Obviously, this is one small step in that journey. But hopefully, educating others about the role they can play in it as well will help to create sustainable, ongoing change.”

It’s something Phil sees as a tremendous opportunity for the future of this sector. “I think the concept of a community energy provider is something TAFE Institutes could play a big role in,” he says.

“As the nature of the power grid changes, TAFEs could help solve some of those grid problems. There are definitely wide-ranging opportunities, which go far beyond our own local implementation, where the TAFE sector could be a strong partner in driving the technologies of the future.”

Phil Paterson, CEO of Wodonga Institute of TAFE

Partnerships are a point of focus for Phil – the institution’s partnership with the Australian Defence Force is set to be huge for Wodonga TAFE. The Institute recently won the Australian Industry Defence Award for Academic Institution of the Year, and Phil is looking forward to capitalising on this newfound success.

“Defence is absolutely key at the moment,” Phil says. “We teach approximately 5,200 Defence personnel across Australia at 12 locations – it’s pretty big. Our aim is to continue doing that, and we believe there’s still opportunity for growth in this space.”

Achieving growth will mean staying fluid and responsive to Defence’s ever-changing needs. However, Phil says they’re up for the task. “It’s really about how we partner with Defence to meet their needs and continue the evolution and innovation of their training. We need to remain a flexible partner for them. And, in providing those services to Defence, we are also reinvesting in our local community. Success with Defence equals success for Wodonga TAFE, as our strategies are well aligned.”

Key partnerships like this enable Wodonga TAFE to continually evolve, expanding its offerings and capabilities. For example, some students use TAFE as a “stepping stone” on their journeys to university, and these articulation pathways are something Wodonga TAFE continues to develop with its university partners.

“Historically, we’ve always had a fantastic relationship with La Trobe University. Our campus coexists with their campus,” Phil shares. “This has led to an opportunity for us to build fantastic pathways for our students from certificate to diploma courses, then on to degrees. This partnership with La Trobe University is an enormous opportunity for us in the future, and I look forward to continuing its growth.”

Wodonga TAFE’s partnership with TechnologyOne has also been vital to its success, helping to improve financial, human resource and student administration processes and reporting.

In 2018–19 TechnologyOne was a major partner in a collaboration between Wodonga TAFE and The Gordon, which resulted in the transition to a new HR/Payroll system in both TAFE Institutes.

“This partnership allows us to extract the most benefit we can from the solutions we’re already deploying,” Phil explains. “We should be using TechnologyOne as our Enterprise platform to deliver the services needed across the Institute. We’re looking at how we can potentially use them to enhance our student enrolment process. To me, that’s the power of having a fully integrated solution.”

Phil’s dedication to excellence at Wodonga TAFE shows why we should all “#LoveYourTAFE”.

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