Skill shortages, blood and guts

I’m enjoying writing my column for the Courier Mail. One of the things I am trying to do is sketch out ways in which very ordinary things and things that people don’t associate with economics have economic dimensions – or rather have dimensions which economic thinking can help with.

This week, how a very nice lady I knew might have been saved from either murder or suicide (at any event death) if we had a different approach to skill development. Tying it to the current skills shortage is a bit Procrustean I’ll admit, but I don’t really try to disguise the fact that I try to smuggle my own agenda, my own ideas into the topics of the day.

To read click here – or if you’ve stumbled upon this after the link has been removed by the paper, read on. . .

Flexibility key to skill shortages

Wednesday View with Nicholas Gruen

Here’s a story about that skills shortage our politicians keep telling us about.

My wife is a teacher. Many years ago she became friends with “Carolyn”, the mother of seven-year-old “Hamish” who had special needs our latest euphemism for the severely disabled.

Carolyn used to help out a lot at the school. She helped everyone but she was really there for Hamish.

Carolyn’s marriage was disintegrating and things had become nasty.

Having a law degree (for my sins), I ended up counselling her. Her lawyer let’s call him Chris was a cheerful fellow in a big bright yellow bow tie who had about as much empathy for his client as our immigration system has for asylum seekers.

Chris suggested she change the locks and lock her husband out of the family house. I was horrified not so much at the advice but at the complete lack of support in helping her carry out a dangerous act against a man of whom she was clearly frightened.

In her traumatised state, Carolyn was not thinking through how things might unfold she was just following instructions. I still remember saying: “Carolyn, if you do this, it has to be like a military operation, with support at hand if things turn nasty.”

Chris hadn’t bothered discussing this with her or referring her to someone who would. I suggested contacting a women’s refuge.

I don’t think she ever did. Carolyn died in circumstances sufficiently suspicious to lead to her husband’s trial for murder though not so suspicious that the jury found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If you were on the jury what would you have done? Sent Hamish’s remaining parent to jail while he grew up? Hamish is now doing well by all reports.

Why is this a story about skill shortages? Well, I reckon Chris the lawyer had a major skills shortage. He probably did “family law” at uni for all I know he specialised in it. But if thoughtfulness about people’s real needs can be taught at all, it wasn’t taught at law school when I did family law.

One could argue that Chris should be required to train in social work. But why not turn it round the other way? Family law is a pretty tightly confined subset of law. By all means graft social working skills on to lawyers for some reason my mind turns to that image of a human ear grafted on to the back of a mouse (or was it a rat?).

But, with the Federal Government’s “skills initiative” offering to publicly fund proposals for innovative ways to accelerate the acquisition of urgently needed skills, the time is right to be much more flexible about career pathways and credentials.

Why don’t we let social workers qualify to practise family law with say an 18-month diploma in family law and a year of “articles” in a family law practice?

First, we don’t want to experiment too much with the qualifications of professionals we have too strong a need to trust them. But we also allow professional practitioners to be gatekeeper and defender of standards in their own profession.

So there’s a good whiff of self-interest in the defence of standards.

Even if you were a lawyer who wouldn’t be threatened by easier entry into the profession, you might well think that all the hard work you did wouldn’t do others any harm.

But if you were running a commercial legal practice, in addition to this heightened conservatism you’d hardly welcome qualified social workers muscling into family law practices.

And if Chris’s case came before you as a case of “malpractice” you might be pretty sympathetic to Chris. You’d probably think that he was only doing his job as a lawyer. Carolyn should have seen a social worker.

How much could such approaches contribute to easing the skills shortage? It’s probably less use in more technical areas where many of the skills shortages lie. But some important skill shortages are in the right areas to benefit from more flexible approaches to credentialing.

Along with expansion of roles for para-legals, para-medics, para-educationalists “fast tracking” options enabling professional career changes could help in these areas. And there are skill shortages in all these areas.

It’s worth doing quite independently of how much it helps address skill shortages.

This is not just an economic question. It’s also about satisfaction people get from more flexible career paths that suit them better, and it’s about the quality of their work.

If we could combine more flexible credentialing with professional regulation that helped measure the quality of service as well as excluding poor performers, who knows what we could achieve?

If we’d done this 15 years ago, Carolyn a person of infinite solicitude for her vulnerable young son, if not, alas, for herself, might be alive, instead of lying in an unmarked grave.

I’m thinking of her now.

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Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


I agree with your substantive points, but I’m not at all sure that your specific lawyer example is a good one. The need for practical advice about taking security precautions before implementing a strategy of locking out a violent husband is obvious and commonsensical. You don’t need any sort of university degree, either in law or social work or anything else, to work it out. And no university degree can reliably inculcate commonsense, sound judgment, wisdom or life experience in people who don’t already possess them. So I don’t think the example proves the need for multi-skilling, more flexible credentialling and so on.

Nevertheless, I think there IS a strong case for students only to be permitted to study law as a second degree, as is traditionally the case in much of the US and is (I gather) an increasing trend in some Australian sandstone universities. The difference in maturity and diligent application to studies between school leaver law students and mature age and graduate stream students at CDU Law School is very marked, and I have no doubt would become wider still in the real world workforce. The maturity and wider experience gained by being older and studying another discipline first (and possibly having been in the workforce for a period as well) would make it much less likely that a lawyer would give the sort of stupid and fatal advice described in your post.

However, in many respects this implies LESS flexible credentialling and more onerous requirements for the discipline of law at least, which is almost the opposite of what you’re advocating.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago

Law as post graduate degree only is an excellent idea.

Not just for reasons given by Ken, but also to filter out those 18 year olds pushed into it by their parents against their will, or those who are studying it just because it takes a high ENTER score to do.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Hang on a minute Ken. The poverty of the advice Carolyn got wasn’t because of immaturity. Chris was a mature fellow. It was because it was from a black letter lawyer. If the advice had been run of the mill advice from a social worker/lawyer, the social worker most likely would have seen his/her task as one of providing legal services within a larger package of help. Not so Chris – though he was practicing in a family law practice.

As for requiring law to be a post-graduate degree, well, as you say, it goes against the grain of the piece I wrote as its arguing for flexibility. But for the sake of the argument, I’m quite happy to go for flexibility subject to maturity. The problem as I see it is twofold.
1) Our professions and credentials are arranged into silos. This is probably inevitable to a fair extent, but pathways should be open for people to move from one to the other.
2) the related point is that we do not regulate the professions by trying to measure output to ensure it doesn’t fall below a certain standard (as airlines regulate pilots for instance). We set up a professional body that then represents the interests of insiders in the profession against outsiders. They are pretty uninterested in measuring the quality of service (admittedly its difficult in some situations – but not in others). So they fall back on credentialism.

If we could develop professional regulation that was more sensitive to ensuring high quality outputs (rather than the input of credentials) a lot of input (credential) reulgation could fall away.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

“admittedly its difficult in some situations – but not in others”

But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? You can easily measure the performance of airline pilots by objective scientific criteria, and the same is true of most physical trades (although in fact there isn’t a system for measuring the performance of plumbers or mechanics or carpenters).

But how would you measure the outputs of lawyers or teachers? Success rate in litigation? But what if most of your cases are uphill battles, whereas someone else works for Freehills and gets only cream litigation where they can afford the most expensive barristers and expert witnesses etc?

And what of teachers? Can you meaningfully measure the output of a teacher whose students are upper middle class from the Kings School against the output of a teacher at Macquarie Fields (notorious for recent anti-police riots etc)? Maybe just keeping most students attending most days is a greater achievement at Macquarie Fields than getting most Kings School students achiving an ENTER core of 90 or more.

As you say, I’m sure there are some aspects of humanities occupations that are capable of meaningful measurement by reference to output. But I think you’re minimising the difficulties, and maybe some amount of credentialism is a rational response to try to maintain approrpriate standards in the public interest. The real danger lies in conflict of interest in control of credentialling. Is the credentialling professional body bona fide attempting to maintain quality in the interests of clients/customers, or maintaining a closed shop in its own existing members’ private interests?

Surely we’d be better advised in many disciplines to look at divorcing accreditation from the professional body that represents existing practitioners, than attempting to measure the unmeasurable.

John Morhall
John Morhall
2024 years ago

Clearly Chris was way out of his depth in dealing with what was appears from your post to be the ‘sharp end’ of family law. The fact that he is a lawyer does not equip him with the essential relational skills per se, but he should at least have been able to have recognised his own inadequacy. IMO not having the required skills he should have just ‘butted out’ and got someone, perhaps a colleague, or even someone from another firm if necessary to help. His apparent lack of empathy may have stemmed for the fact that he was unable to deal with the issues raised.

The matter does raise some interesting issues.
Ngaire Naffine in her book “The Law and the Sexes”

Andrew Leigh
2024 years ago

Ken is right to point out that the main question is whether performance is observable. If consumers can observe performance, then credential-based entry may decrease mean quality (since able candidates will be deterred by sitting the test). But if performance is unobservable to customers, then we’re in a second-best world, and a credential-based system may be optimal. The US studies on this have found that credentialling lowers quality of teachers and hospital doctors. But I don’t know of good work on this issue regarding lawyers.

Oh, and a nice piece by Morris Kleiner (JEP, 2000) found that in almost every instance, credentialing raises wages.