Never out of training

Phil Cox’s early career spanned more than 20 years in the maritime and transport industries.

However, an itch for something different resulted in a move north where his significant period with TAFE NSW began. Working across the state, Phil held multiple leading roles including senior executive at the North Coast Institute, deputy director at the Sydney Institute and institute director/chief executive of both the Western Sydney Institute and Hunter Institute. 

Despite retiring in 2015, Phil remains a strong supporter of regional economic development and continues to work closely with local industry to identify and help plan for their future training needs. He holds directorships with the Hunter Valley Training Company, the Lake Macquarie Foundation and the Honeysuckle Community Group.

  1. What Catholic School/s did you attend? Do you know why your parents chose Catholic education for you?

St Joseph’s Primary at Carrington, which is no longer there. It was a tiny, local community Catholic school where nuns were the teachers. Following this, I went to St Pius X, Adamstown. My mother was from a strong Catholic background and she and her mother had attended Catholic schools. Mum decided on the nurturing and caring side of the Catholic school system for her children. My dad was not Catholic, but he agreed. My children also went through the Catholic school system and now we have grandchildren who have started in Catholic schools.

  1. What drew you to the VET sector? What has been the most memorable or rewarding moment in your career?

What drew me to the VET sector wasn't really the VET sector. It was an opportunity to do something different. I am a qualified accountant and had been working in different roles in Newcastle for 20 years. The children were still young, and my wife and I wanted to do something different. I accepted a role as director of finances with TAFE NSW based at Port Macquarie. I threw myself into understanding the business and it blew me away just how fantastic an organisation it was and the opportunities it presented. Within 18 months I was acting as the institute director and from that point I progressed through the TAFE NSW system and went on to have a very rewarding career in VET. 

  1. During your time with TAFE NSW you implemented an alumni association. Why do you believe this is important?

I'd seen through other organisations the impact alumni can have and was astounded we hadn’t recognised or capitalised on the vast array of our past TAFE students. Many had gone on to achieve career and life success, which could be harnessed to inspire our current and future students. Take for example chefs and cooks. There were so many famous chefs, in Australia and working overseas, and just about all of them had been trained through the TAFE system. They have that inbuilt energy to be what they want to be, but the practical training and bringing the best out of them is a big part of what TAFE does. We found a lot of our alumni wanted to come back and help our current students. We set up a mentoring program where they would meet with groups of students and tell them about what they had done and how they achieved that and how that changed their life. 

  1. As a strong supporter of regional development and having experienced first-hand the value of higher, vocational and career training, what advice would you have for students planning their career path?

Everyone wants their child to have the best career possible and many see a university education as the best way to achieve that. But not every young person, or adult, are suited to the university environment or what it teaches. TAFE has a significant variety of career pathway options and I do not believe we promote them enough. It's surprising the number of people who, having completed university degrees, aren't happy with what they are doing and then come to TAFE. So, my advice is: try to look at all the career options and pathways and see what attracts you. Don’t lock yourself in to a lifelong career. There are always other opportunities if you're not happy with what you're doing.  

  1. Australia is experiencing a skills shortage. As a board director at HVTC, do you believe school leavers should be better informed on the opportunities that exist from completing an apprenticeship and traineeship?

The VET sector needs to get better at promoting what it does and how it does it. One of the big issues is in the past many school counsellors or career guidance officers steered kids the way the parents probably wanted them to go — usually a university pathway — rather than giving them the whole range of career or study options. It is critical we provide everyone with the full information.

With regards to the skill shortage, there are supply and demand issues that need to be recognised. Industry and government do not do enough. Many industries just prefer to recruit someone who is already trained, but these industries also need to commit to contributing to the training side too. Various industries “poaching” tradespeople from each other has been and continues to be a major contributor towards the skills shortages. That's what happened probably 15 years ago when the coal industry was booming. People from different industries in the Newcastle region were flocking up to the mines to get double the pay. And then there was a huge skills shortage in the manufacturing and construction industries. Demand for various key skills areas was increasing but supply was diminishing. In days gone by, BHP for example, trained hundreds of apprentices each year, and most government departments used to train many apprentices also. None of them do that now. There is no BHP here, and the government has abandoned the idea of training various apprentices. I think we need to push back at all levels of industry and government. They need to contribute to the training to make sure we don't have ongoing skills shortages in economically critical areas.

  1. Is faith a big part of your life? If yes, how has it helped?

No. I went through the Catholic School system, was baptised and everything like that and went to church for my mother’s sake. I haven't had the depth of faith that she had. My mother had suffered with cancer and I think her faith carried her through years of additional lifespan.

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Brittany Gonzalez

Brittany Gonzalez is a Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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