Reflecting on over two and a half years in the job, TasTAFE Chief Executive Jenny Dodd is anything but complacent. “We’ve achieved a great deal during that time, including having to deal with the challenges of delivering training during a pandemic,” she begins. “But there are exciting opportunities ahead. TasTAFE is now well positioned to play a vital role as Tasmania recovers from COVID-19 by providing the vocational education and training necessary to equip job seekers in the new economy. We’re looking to be part of reshaping the future of tertiary education in Tasmania.”

Plunged into the midst of a turbulent time for the organisation, Jenny’s arrival heralded a new era. Driven and ready to make serious changes, the past couple of years have seen her stabilise the state’s largest registered training provider, lay solid foundations for future growth, and chart a course to counter the current conditions while capitalising on a range of opportunities in the interests of all Tasmanians.

“We’ve got some fantastic staff at TasTAFE,” explains Jenny. “And I’m really proud of their dedication to the work that we had to do. It began with the successful implementation of all 95 recommendations from an internal audit examining the organisation’s business practices. We now have a renewed set of rigorous processes, policies and procedures and they are well complemented by a whole-of-organisation professional development program. Across a state-wide organisation of more than 800 staff, that in itself was a substantial task.”

2019 also saw TasTAFE’s successful registration with the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) renewed for a further seven years, the maximum renewal term. “An ASQA audit is a significant event for a training provider, but also a welcome one,” says Jenny. “An independent audit of your training is a chance to flag any issues and work harder to improve the outcomes and experiences for our students. It was a great way for us to measure what we were doing well and also what could be improved.”

Of note in the ASQA report was TasTAFE’s commitment to student support. “It’s one of the key points of difference here,” continues Jenny. “And one I certainly notice after working across multiple states in this sector. The focus on student support at TasTAFE is commendable. The staff are heavily invested in outcomes for our students and go above and beyond to support each individual. Genuine support is entrenched in TasTAFE and the range of services available is impressive.”

Jenny explains that during the past four to five months the organisation moved to realise its vision for multi-mode delivery in a very short period of time. “Within a matter of weeks we had moved courses online, including some that I had originally anticipated might take years to develop. We also planned to bring our students back on campus for practical learning in small groups from early in May. I was impressed by the commitment our staff demonstrated towards our students – this was a big undertaking. We weren’t perfect, but we were trying very hard to minimise the disruption to our students as much as we could. I am very pleased to say most of our courses now have a minimum online presence, allowing students to be digitally connected with their teachers and to access learning online.”

Initially launching herself into a marketing career, Jenny’s attention quickly turned to education when she discovered strong alignment with her own values. “Back then in marketing, meetings were often scheduled for 5.30 or 6pm. It wasn’t family friendly at all, and people even told me outright that I wouldn’t succeed because I could not be available at that time. I soon began to reassess what was important. I ended up in the vocational education sector, at first working with unemployed youth in Western Sydney. My qualifications and then working in marketing have all been important parts of the fabric of my career – they have been fundamental in developing business experience and acumen.” Jenny reflects, “When I think about how my own career has evolved, it’s very much how I see the future…people should be able to dip in and out of learning, top up their skills banks and embrace a range of opportunities. We’ve known for some time that it’s not about a single path anymore.”

Jenny’s journey to being a national vocational education specialist has seen her expertly embrace a range of roles. “Some of those roles have actually found me,” she laughs. “Life is richer when you say yes to opportunities and when faced with a new one, my mantra is often ‘bring it on.’”

From teaching and developing commercial training, through to managing national projects and e-learning programs, Jenny is no stranger to a challenge. She cut her teeth at the Canberra Institute of Technology, going on to hold the role of Deputy CEO of Education Services and later acting as CEO for a year.

“A subsequent move to Queensland was a great time for me,” Jenny describes. “As General Manager of TAFE Gold Coast for three years I was involved in a lot of very exciting projects. However I’ve always been prepared to move if the timing was right, and this occurred again when I accepted the role as Chief Academic Officer in Brisbane. That period saw us undertake an amazing transformation – merging multiple organisations under the one TAFE Queensland banner. In that same period, I also oversaw the training of the Commonwealth Games volunteers and that was a personal career highlight. We moved the bulk of the training online and implemented some innovative technology to morph the systems of the Games organisers with our own Learning Management System.”

The position in Tasmania was one that sparked Jenny’s interest, though she only agreed to make the move with the full support of her partner. “I’ve been fortunate enough to always have his support,” she smiles. “We’ve travelled to Tasmania quite a bit over the years and we both love it here. The location appealed, and I also felt I could clearly see what had to be done in the role to get things on a solid course. I felt I had the skills and experience to offer, so we said yes. It’s a time of transformation in this industry and that’s great to be a part of.”

“Never before has this sector seen the amount of reviews that it has of late,” explains Jenny. “The vocational education and training reform agenda has continued its momentum even during COVID. Skills development has never been more important. We also need to provide the ability for people to move more freely between TAFE and higher education and for that to be a lifelong path. No one remains in the one career anymore and we need to be ready when people are looking to add to their skill sets or upgrade their qualifications, just like many people are confronted with right now.”

“The future is about having transferrable skills.”

Soon after her appointment to the role, Jenny set about rebuilding the TasTAFE leadership team. “I’m very confident in the senior leadership we have now,” she states. “Our executives bring extensive skills and experience both from industry and within the TAFE sector. They’re forward thinking and empowered to make strong decisions. They’re also focussed on collaborating with industry to ensure we deliver the training that employers need. Not only am I confident in them, but I’m also confident in the potential future leaders we have within the organisation. I’m very pleased that we are starting to shape succession and develop our people for the future.”

“We have a clear focus on stability, transparency and academic rigour, and it’s that educational rigour that we are now in a position to turn our attention to,” says Jenny. “That’s the exciting part. I truly believe in the TAFE system as I see it change lives all the time. Real life learning that can be applied straight into the work environment is invaluable.”

“As a vocational education specialist, that’s where my passion lies,” Jenny continues. “At the heart of it, people come to us to obtain something that really can transform their future. That skill set or qualification can act like a key. The local statistics here are very good too – we’re seeing almost 80% of our Tasmanian students employed after their training, and 88% being satisfied with the teaching they received. Both of those figures are very strong and the first one is above the national average.”

TasTAFE is now turning its attention to progressing the quality of its training programs. “Students are at the core of what we do and that’s driving our focus,” says Jenny. “We now have an Academic Committee in place, which is central to any organisation focussed on education. I’m looking forward to our staff shaping further innovative learning programs so that we can increase our reach. Digital learning has been shown to be key for many Tasmanians to be able to successfully access education during these difficult times. We will continue to design those programs carefully so that they are effective. I’m interested in developing further our online environments that put students and their learning first. We also have new courses to develop to meet Tasmania’s emerging industries, such as renewable energy, and we are starting to turn our attention to those areas.”

“Clearly COVID-19 presented a number of challenges for us, and I am proud of the way our staff and students have responded. The events of 2020 necessitated rapid change and we have been able to bring forward our vision for digital learning across many learning areas. We remain committed to fine tuning those offerings to ensure students receive the best possible learning experience.”

In Jenny’s opinion, “There are many myths about vocational education that are hard to shake, and some of that comes down to us re-educating parents and school teachers. Vocational education qualifications will be needed in 9 out of 10 occupations predicted to have the greatest growth over the next five years. This is a compelling fact, and I’d encourage everyone to ensure they are considering all their options in terms of education, not just the traditional university path. Get a qualification or skill set from TAFE – you will value it all your life.”

“Each year at TasTAFE we enrol over 20 000 students,” explains Jenny. “That training is across more than 200 nationally accredited and industry-endorsed qualifications. Our focus as the public provider is to support the skills needed by Tasmanian industries – these are the key drivers of the local economy.”

Jenny is quick to comment on the Tasmanian economic stimulus that will see strong demand for the construction trades, “Construction, electrotechnology, plumbing…they’ve all experienced strong growth and it will continue during this post COVID recovery time. In particular we’re seeing unprecedented demand for apprenticeship training across a number of our trade areas. That presents great opportunity and also certain challenges.”

Another high demand industry is health. “Recent refurbishments of our nursing facilities in both Hobart and Launceston will allow us to increase numbers each year by another third,” says Jenny. “We know that health professionals have never been in such demand and that will only grow as we live with this pandemic.”

Speaking definitively, Jenny cites vocational education as amongst the most difficult of the teaching sectors to master. “If you think about it, primary and secondary teachers require an education degree to teach but no industry experience. University lecturers are often rich in experience and research, however do not require formal teaching qualifications. Those in the TAFE sector must have both…they must have current industry experience and they also must hold a teaching qualification in the form of the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. That’s quite a big ask.”

“You can probably appreciate that many industries are transforming rapidly. Our electrotechnology teachers, just to take one example, must remain current with all the latest developments, must be adapting their skills for a changing industry that has higher levels of technology and must be good teachers – that means they not only teach full time but they often work in their industry to keep their skills relevant and current.”

With a shortage of skilled workers in various Tasmanian industries, it has proven difficult to attract new teachers to the TAFE system – and Jenny points out this is a national problem in some industries. “Those skilled workers are currently very busy out in industry, so we need to make it easier for them to transition to a teaching career. One of the initiatives we have recently implemented to break down these barriers is the introduction of our innovative Teacher under Supervision program. This allows us to bring in new industry teachers to deliver training while the assessment responsibilities remain with existing qualified teachers.”

TasTAFE covers everything from plumbing to nursing, from hairdressing to engineering, from animal studies to graphic design. “There are different issues for each of them, and different subcultures in each industry. It’s fascinating,” says Jenny, “And something we must constantly strive to remain abreast of.”

“Large vocational education providers are wonderful melting pots of industries.”

How does someone constantly being pulled in all directions unwind and find time for herself? “I guess here in Tassie, we are embracing the fact that we are not locals,” enthuses Jenny. “My partner and I both love bushwalking and get out often to explore and just have adventures. Pre COVID we also contributed to the tourism book by hosting a lot of interstate guests, including our own three adult children and partners…they’re always a good distraction.”

Like all educational professionals, time management is not far from Jenny’s thoughts. Speaking of her career to date, she laughs, “It’s not uncommon for me to get stuck into longer documents over the weekend so I am fully prepared for discussions during the week ahead. However, I think the best advice someone once gave me was to allow a certain proportion of your week to think and to read. Take the time to absorb new things and to know your industry. That’s the only way one can grow and I really believe that’s important to sound leadership.”

As Jenny’s three year contract at TasTAFE draws to a close the organisation is preparing to welcome its next leader. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Tasmania and believe as an organisation that we’ve made outstanding headway. While there are big challenges to tackle in the next two years during this recovery period, the future is very bright for someone stepping into this role. I look forward to following TasTAFE’s progression in the years ahead. It will always be of special interest to me and I know I’ll be cheering loudly at TasTAFE’s successes over the next few years.”

Keep up to date with TasTAFE via their website.