Step 3: Competency conversation

Once the applicant has collected the evidence accessible to them, you should arrange to meet with them to conduct a formal competency conversation (also called 'professional conversation' or 'learning conversation'). The purpose of the competency conversation is to gain a detailed insight into the applicant's relevant skills, knowledge and experience. This is particularly useful for people who have moved jobs or do not have paper evidence of their skills.

Quality Skills Recognition uses conversations and interactions that feature thoughtful questions, careful listening and reflective/checking responses. It is advisable to use both closed questions (which target specific, focussed information) and open-ended questions that allow the applicant to expand.

The competency conversation can be conducted face-to-face with the applicant, over the telephone or via technologies such as Skype. Competency conversations are also useful when conducting group Skills Recognition assessments, as the applicants have opportunities to remind each other of relevant work experiences.

Probing for information

A skilled assessor uses probing questions to bring out information that the applicant has not yet supplied. Thorough questioning enables the assessor to be confident that the applicant has the appropriate vocational skills and knowledge to be considered competent. Do not expect applicants to tell you everything about their skills and experience; some relevant information may seem 'too obvious' for them to mention. It is your responsibility as the assessor to probe for this information.

You may want to prepare in advance a list of suitable questions, or develop a question bank, to ensure that you cover all key aspects of the unit of competency. However, avoid using these questions as a form of test or exam. Competency conversations are very different from oral exams as the assessor guides the conversation to areas of the applicant's experience that will shed the most light on relevant skills and knowledge. A rigid structure, with a long list of predetermined questions relating to each unit of competency, is likely to be counterproductive, repetitive and overly time consuming.

It is important to remember that the notes taken during competency conversations are important evidence and should be retained as part of the applicant's assessment records.

Alternative conversational strategies

Alternative strategies, such as narratives, life histories and story-telling can be particularly useful, for example, when assessing Indigenous Australians, for whom story telling may be a more effective way of garnering information about their skills and experiences rather than a more formal approach or written tests. See case studies for examples from the Australian rail industry.

Conducting quality competency conversations

To conduct a quality competency conversation the assessor requires:

  • a good understanding of the relevant industry (in this case, the rail industry)
  • a thorough knowledge of the relevant units of competency as practised in the current work environment
  • experience in assessing against those units
  • the ability to communicate effectively with a range of applicants
  • the ability tease out information through tactful probing
  • the ability to empathise with diverse clients

Assessing abstract and 'Employability' skills

Skills Recognition processes can be improved by greater recognition of so-called abstract, soft, tacit or non-technical skills. Abstract skills are particularly important in safety-critical industries such as rail, and recognising these skills is a valuable risk mitigation strategy for enterprises.

Some abstract skills relevant to the rail industry are embedded within the concept of Employability Skills - sometimes referred to as key skills, core skills, life skills, essential skills, key competencies, necessary skills, transferable skills or generic skills. Currently, there are eight Employability Skills:

  • communication
  • teamwork
  • problem solving
  • initiative and enterprise
  • planning and organising
  • self-management
  • learning
  • technology

These and other abstract skills (decision-making, situational awareness) can be difficult to assess through workplace observation, and it may be necessary to ask the applicant for specific examples that provide evidence of competence. Some examples of questions that can be used during the professional conversation to target employability and other abstract skills are given below.

Evidence of Planning and preparing

'Before you commence a new job or task, how have you established the scope of work to be undertaken, tools and equipment requirements and obtained appropriate resources? How do you monitor variations to the job?'

Evidence of clear Communication

'What procedures do you follow for non-routine events and job variations that occur on the work site?'

'Can you provide an example of a recent job you have performed and the steps you followed when completing service reports and other workplace documentation?'

'What information do you provide in that documentation and how is that communicated to the appropriate persons when completing a job?'

Evidence of Sustainable work practices

'Can you give an example of how you have actively employed sustainable energy principles during and completing a job and when leaving the work site at the end of the day?'

Evidence of Basic computer operations

'What computer applications have you used recently at work, at home, or elsewhere?'

'Can you outline the steps you take when using computer applications, including how information is used, files stored and forwarded?'

Evidence of Occupational Health and Safety

'Can you describe what you do to carry out your obligations and responsibilities prior to commencing work? As well as work preparation, can you explain your obligations and responsibilities under current OH&S legislation?'

'Can you describe/explain what safety processes you have followed before entering a work area? And what procedures you have used to ensure a safe work area, including how tools and equipment are checked for safety and correct functionality?'

'Can you describe the typical hazards have you come across in your work and what risk management control measures did you apply?'

'How would you deal with an accident or fire that has occurred in your work area?'

Evidence of Documenting occupational hazards

'Can you explain where you have used documentation in recording hazards, their risk classification and control measures used?'

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: These questions have been, in part, adapted from The Department of Training and Workforce Development, Western Australia, RPL Assessment Tool, which is a very useful resource for assessors. For more examples of probing questions which you can use in profession conversations go to:

Please visit the National Skills Standards Council (NSSC) website