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Date published: 6 February 2012

Holding just one qualification in a working lifetime is no longer satisfactory as the workforce becomes more highly skilled and educated.

The marked increase in workers with post-school qualifications - growing from 50 per cent to 61 per cent in the past decade - has intensified competition in the jobs market and coincided with greater employment mobility.

With latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing the national economy shed more jobs than it created in 2011, making it the worst year for job creation since 1992, workers more than ever need to think about upgrading their skills to make the cut or get an edge.

But far from sacrificing their income by quitting their job and studying full time, juggling work and study is becoming the norm.

National Centre for Vocational Education Research figures show that of the 1.8 million students enrolled in the public vocational education and training system in 2010, 85.4 per cent were studying part time.

Open Universities Australia has tapped into the increasing demand for knowledge-based workers by offering comprehensive university and TAFE courses online. More than 70 per cent of students who disclosed their employment status to OUA in 2011 were working and studying at the same time.

Open Universities Australia chief executive Stuart Hamilton says the age of students varies, between 13 and 93 years but most fit in four broad categories.

"First there are people who have missed out on university because of a low score, gone into the workforce and realised they need to advance," he says.

"There are also many people who have a degree but who realise 10 or so years down the track they need something else.

"Thirdly there are the more senior people who want to get to that managerial level.

"And lastly there are people (mainly women) who have had children and want to re-enter the workforce or update their skills."

But the latest figures from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations reveal more than 18 per cent of Australian students starting bachelor degrees drop out during the first year.

Hamilton says students can avoid becoming another statistic through planning and patience.

"Don't try to rush all your courses through at once by over committing yourself," he says.

"It is also important to make a realistic assessment of your routines. There are web tools on our website to gauge whether you need a refresher course, as well as how to plan a study program."

In 2011, the top 10 courses undertaken by students at OUA were (in order): primary school education, criminology, communications, study skills, education, accounting, management, information technology, marketing and behavioural sciences.

Of the 55,000 students who studied online through OUA last year, 65 per cent were women.

Deloitte Access Economics economist Chris Richardson says employers now demand more from current and prospective employees than ever before.

"Over the next five years we will see a very sharp increase in retirement as baby boomers clock off from their careers," he says.

That means we are going to have less skills and experience in the workforce. The logical response from that is employers are going to want to see more skills from their employees."

But Richardson says employees and jobseekers should not assume career education is a major financial cost that is exclusively attained at a university or TAFE. Many employers are seeing the benefits of educating their staff and are offering in-house education and, if not, will pay some or all of the fees associated with staff up skilling.

Deloitte's Building the Lucky Country report says: "For many workers, getting to the next stage in their career requires motivation to make a change that is not necessarily straightforward.

"Getting workers into the right frame of mind requires a nurturing environment that provides opportunities for skills development and an engaged management team that encourages workers to grow."

Date: 28 January 2012
Publication: Daily Telegraph
Title: Learning for life