Skip to Content

AMEP Research Centre

AMEP National Forum 1 2009


Day 1

Helen Murphy, TAFE Queensland Language & Literacy Services, opened the first AMEP National Forum for 2009 on Language, workplace and employability skills. Helen welcomed delegates to the new campus of the Southbank TAFE, andacknowledged and gave respect to the traditional owners of the land, the Jagera people. Helen thanked the organisers of the event for their work, and the presenters for coming to share their work at this Forum.

Lynda Yates, Acting Director of the AMEP Research Centre, Macquarie University, added her thanks and took the opportunity to introduce attending members of the Research Centre before welcoming the presenters.

Following the opening, Sally Wright, in her presentation on Australian Working Life: Forward with Fairness and the Australia at Work Survey,touched on a number of pertinent issues regarding the Australian workforce. She described the Australian system of Industrial Relations (IR) as highly complex and the several recent legislative changes. In particular, the Fair Work Act (2009) marks a significant departure from WorkChoices. That is, this new act bolsters the safety net and protection for the low paid.

The findings from the Workplace Research Centre's in-depth longitudinal study - Australia at Work (2008) indicated that employees were uncertain about industrial arrangements and that there was an increase in living and work pressures. It was also found that culturally and linguistically diverse workers were less likely than native speakers of English to be employed, work in the public sector or have trade qualifications. Additionally, these non-native speaker workers were more likely to be better educated, work in professional roles, and earn less than the average wage. However, she cautioned that this analysis was conducted on persons whose L1 was not English and may or may not have been immigrants.

Bernadette Vine then followed with her report on Relational talk at work: From the workplace to the classroom and back again. This outlined the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project (LWP) which has been investigating workplace communication since 1996, analysing features of naturally occurring face-to-face interaction in New Zealand organisations. Results show that effective communicators are skilled at managing workplace relationships through the use of devices such as small talk and in the way they express and respond to speech acts for example, requests. This is an area that can cause problems for migrants. Their inability to effectively manage these aspects of workplace communication can make it difficult to fit in and even to find work. The LWP research and database of authentic interactions has been used to develop materials for a course teaching workplace communication skills to professional migrants, and in 2008 the course participants became a focus of research, as the LWP began to follow migrants through the course and into the workplace. Examples were given to show the migrants' development in areas such as making and refusing requests, and in relational talk."

Details of the project are available at:

Lynda Yates, in her presentation on Speech Acts in the Workplace: Lessons for learners, drew attention to the fact that ‘workplace language’ is not easily defined. Rather it can be seen as a community of practice with language habits, understandings and assumptions of an area or activity which is often task oriented, drawing heavily on shared background knowledge. Moreover there is a huge variation across and between industries, organisations, and workplaces. Language contains a strong inter-personal dimension to communication at work. Lynda therefore focused on ‘speech acts’ as easily recognisable ways to understand how people do things with language and useful starting points for analysis.

Language is seen as performing a function and Lynda outlined the differences between what is said (locution), what is meant (illocution), and the effect that it has (perlocution). Challenges for migrants, who will have had a different cultural experience of language, therefore include understanding expectations of appropriate behaviour, and misinterpretation of language in different contexts and within different power relationships. Lynda looked in particular at the literature on directives and the insights that can be gained from speech act research. Directives are not only ubiquitous at work but can be difficult to recognise, being often implicit, and challenging for migrants to make. The importance of being able to soften directives was emphasised as part of the need for migrants to learn inter-cultural competence. Lynda pointed out the direct application of speech act research into materials for teaching at all skills levels, and the links with employability skills such as communication and team-building.

A group discussion session then followed, looking at “the extent to which the expectations of workplace culture are diverse or homogenous, and how the AMEP can deal with divergent/diverse aspects of ‘workplace culture’ expectations”. Observations from the 11 groups included the need for learners to broaden their linguistic choices, particularly as workplaces are not homogeneous. This diversity was seen to include the hierarchical structures that can be found in workplaces such as offices, hotels and hospitals. Teaching skills for learners to be able to fit in, engage in small talk, ask for clarification, show initiative, work in teams and be able to develop their own self-confidence etc were seen as important. It was felt that the AMEP needs to look at the inductive process in organisations and industries, use the meta-language of linguistics and develop a PD program for teachers which draws on the collective experience and creates tools for teaching. It also needs to equip learners with strategies to find out the expectations and norms of their place of work, particularly the Australian workplace, which could include increasing their awareness of the cultural differences in such acts as asking questions. Management should also be involved in the awareness of what is actually required of employers and employees.

Helen Murphy then introduced a panel session on Opening the Door: Working in Australia – a refugee/humanitarian entrant perspective. Aneta Bilal, Gatkuoth Kueth and Hia Win Htun each gave a report on their experiences and observations from Africa (especially the Sudan), Korea and Myanmar (Burma). This included the employability skills of ethnic groups from these countries contrasted with the Australian workplace and the different standards of workplace entry level of skills and qualifications. The unwritten rules of the refugee and war-related workplace were explored, identifying the potential barriers which may make orientation in Australia harder for these clients, and potential strengths that these clients may bring to the workplace. These latter included resilience, the ability to adapt, patience, independence, courage, self-reliance and a strong sense of community.

The panel considered issues around Employment Pathways Program (EPP) planning such as the rural background of many refugees, and the importance in Australia of communications skills, including literacy and numeracy. The differences between cultures were raised, illustrated by the conventions and taboos of touching. The expectations of both migrants and employers need to be appreciated and understood, with language and cultural inclusiveness seen as key to successful employment.

Jacky Springall from AMES Victoria then reported on the Employment Pathways Programs (EPP) and Traineeships in English and Work Readiness programs (TEWR) that are currently being piloted nationally in the AMEP. These programs have been developed following the July 2008 directive and funding from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). Jacky outlined the ‘rules’ for each program and the differences between the AMEP and the EPP/TEWR. The key differences are that the AMEP provides services for low level learners with a methodology and practice that has been built up over the years and is linked to the CSWE curriculum. The EPP/TEWR programs provide services for migrants with higher levels of English language skills with a focus on employment and OHS. The role of the teacher within the AMEP and the EPP/TEWR programs is quite different as are the Key Performance Indicators.

Jacky reported on mixed reactions and concerns from teachers and the identification of a culture shift in beliefs about work readiness. Resources, research and PD for teachers are all needed. Counselors are seen as playing a critical role, providing information and links with the program delivery team, as well as helping students identify goals and pathways. Program managers and coordinators need a knowledge of industry opportunities, a flexibility in programming and micro-management in the delivery of programs. A major customer service shift is seen in the reporting systems to DIAC. Students are currently giving very positive feedback, but learners will need to clarify their own goals and expectations, understand what opportunities and pathways are available to them, consider the timing of their participation in the programs, and be aware of the realities of work participation.

Jacky’s presentation was followed by a second group discussion on “the implications of learner and teacher perspectives for the AMEP program delivery/organisation and curriculum”. PD for teachers in current workplace practices was seen as essential, supported by teaching materials, resources sourced from the workplace and co-teaching with vocational trainers. Research into the long term employment of migrants is also needed. Not all students would benefit from the programs and cultural sensitivity is very important.

Day 2

Alan Tidswell, MD and CEO of the Mining, Energy and Engineering Academy, presented the results of employee programs initiated and developed by OneSteel, Whyalla on workplace employability: Goal 100, and the Get Set Youth program.

Begun in 2006, Goal 100 aimed to give 100 unemployed people the opportunity to gain permanent employment. This involved breaking a vicious cycle which included drug/alcohol addiction, poor literacy and numeracy skills, abusive backgrounds and lack of self-confidence. The program therefore focused on changing established patterns to make participants ‘work ready’. At completion of the program 86 participants were employed.

The Get Set Youth program aims to recruit 50 apprentices each year. Of the initial intake of 38 starters in 2007, 0 had sufficient literacy and numeracy for an apprenticeship, about 10 suffered from drug/alcohol abuse, and about 4 had criminal records. Employability skills, including aspects of personal development, were developed and after 12 weeks 26 students graduated, passing the literacy and numeracy assessments, clean of all substance abuse. The program involved partnerships with other groups, such as TAFE SA, focused the students on the work that they wanted to do, and motivated them with regular reward and acknowledgment of their achievements. The program is now oversubscribed with applicants.

Key findings from these programs include the awareness that everyone has potential given the opportunity, or if given a second chance. Issues of literacy and numeracy education need to be addressed; working productively with other organisations to maximise areas of strength should be encouraged; and individuals’ progress should be supported and followed through.

Alan Jones, in a presentation on Business discourse as a site of inherent struggle,

then discussed situations of conflict which can arise within the communication patterns of the business field. He explored the view that communication is essentially a type of social action and that social action has two main forms - strategic action and communicative action. In strategic action, communication is driven by individual agendas, whereas in communicative action the motivation for speaking lies in a free exchange of meanings aiming at mutual understanding and consensual action plans. Inevitably, because individual agendas are never identical, strategic action often results in conflict or ‘struggle’.

Alan described how workers typically deal with such conflict. Workers may (1) maintain silence instead of risking talk (occluded discourse), (2) continually shift positions on issues (competing discourses), or sometimes (3) stammer, make false starts, self-contradict,  etc (impeded discourse). His talk ended with a discussion of communication strategies that can help workers to cope with the conflictual nature of the workplace.  For example workers (and their employers) need to anticipate difference; practice taking on different viewpoints; and learn to view communication as a ‘balancing act’ where competing interests can be recognised and to some degree reconciled.  It was noted that workers from non-Western backgrounds may be used to organisational cultures where the suppression of conflict and the absence of democratic participation in the workplace are normal. Alan suggested that, to fit into the Australian workplace, they need to acquire communicative strategies that balance confidence and assertiveness with politeness and respect, building on an awareness of their workplace rights.

The seminar ended with a discussion of good communication strategies to reduce the impacts of conflictual talk in the workplace.  For example, when workers are faced with resistance, indifference, suspicion, and hostility they should react with confidence, assertiveness, and uphold their right of reply. Finally, it was noted that workers from non-Western backgrounds may have come from organisational cultures where suppression of conflict and the absence of democratic participation in the workplace are the norm.

A recipient of a Churchill Fellowship, Amanda McKay then gave a report of her study tour with her Perspectives from Overseas. Amanda’s aim was to research programs and strategies for assisting refugees and migrants into the workplace in the USA, Canada, and the UK. She found very different situations and organisations within each country.

In the US Amanda found that entitlements varied by State and County and were both limited and short-term. Conditions in the workplace were difficult for refugees and the minimum wage only $8 per hr. It was very easy for migrants to fall into the poverty trap, and teachers and programs were often insecure in their funding. Spanish was the predominant language of migrants. Amanda reported visiting the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) Mission Campus, the Centre for Employment Training in San Jose, and the Worksource Capital Career Centre in Portland, Oregon.

Amanda found provisions in Canada to be more similar to those in Australia. However, ESL provision varied according to State, although the minimum hours tuition provided was uniformly higher than that in Australia, but programs suffered from a funding cycle. 60% of migrants were Chinese and issues were emerging for long-term resident migrants who had only developed survival levels of English. Amanda reported visiting the Vancouver Community College which offers a course in professional and career English.

Benefits in the UK varied between England and Scotland, and migrant workers, eg from Poland, were identified as a particular issue. Scotland provides considerable support for asylum seekers and Amanda visited the Bridges Programmes in Glasgow which also offers a women’s empowerment program and a 16+ youth program. In London Amanda investigated the Refugees into Jobs program which included a refugee women’s project, a doctor’s self-help project, and the Invest to Save project.

Amanda concluded that there were lessons for Australia from all the countries visited, but that we were very lucky to have the AMEP. The full version of Amanda’s report is available at

Gina Whitfield’s presentation, Teaching employability: an observation across work cultures, considered issues that teachers and counselors are faced with when assisting students experiencing difficulties at workplaces and teaching them employability skills. Gina introduced some successful examples of interventions where there was a marked improvement in employability skills. Eleven case studies of students in the ACL Pathways to Work program were introduced. These students had difficulties arising from differences in workplace cultures and expectations between Australia and their home countries.

Issues were varied according to the workplaces the students were placed in and the cultures that the students were from. Examples of the issues included inappropriate attitudes, manners, language use, dress code at the workplace, an incapability or unwillingness to make small talk; lack of assertiveness; lack of knowledge of regulations in the workplace that may protect the employee physically and/or legally, breach of confidentiality, and inappropriate time management. Tailored interventions were made addressing the particular difficulties that the student experienced. These included role plays; task-oriented activities; explicit teaching of general information of safety, culture and legal rights at workplaces; group discussion; and explicit teaching of mitigation strategies. After the interventions, the students showed a marked improvement in their workplace behaviour.

The presentation ended with suggestions on how employability skills can be modeled in the classroom. These included students signing attendance sheets; providing opportunities for self-presentation; explicit teaching of cultural expectations in the Australian context, such as showing respect to others, taking an initiative, engaging in team work, and being able to manage conflict.

The Forum concluded with a presentation from Loy Lising on the longitudinal, ethnographic study currently being conducted by the AMEP Research Centre:

Language training and settlement success: Are they related? This study has been ongoing since early 2008 and Loy acknowledged the hard work and dedication of all the researchers and service providers. She outlined the structure of the study, the research questions, the methodology and emerging issues. Loy showed how rich data has been collected through 11 service providers, a team of researchers (including teacher researchers) and invited participants. An attrition rate of only 11% has been achieved through establishing a strong rapport between researchers and the participants.

Loy reported on the initial findings of the study, including topics areas, students’ attitudes towards settlement and their changing expectations, needs, goals and aspirations.

Outcomes from the study will include PD materials for teachers on pronunciation, which has emerged as a key issue both for students and for teachers. This was briefly outlined by Beth Zielinski. A PD kit will be developed which will enable teachers to identify features of pronunciation using samples focused on the dominant languages of the students. Audio samples and a written text will be provided, together with some theory background, activities and techniques for teachers, and suggestions for researchers.

The study will be reported in full at the National Forum in November 2009.