The Dusseldorp Skills Forum was established in 1989 to mark the retirement of GJ (Dick) Dusseldorp, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Lend Lease Group of Companies.
At his final Annual General Meeting as Chairman, Lend Lease employees and shareholders unanimously voted in favour of this unusual retirement gift, issuing a grant of shares to establish a foundation in his name, to fund its own activities by income from its assets.
A fundamental indicator of a society’s wellbeing is the degree to which its young people are both encouraged and able to develop into productive and independent adulthood.
In 1988 Dick had posed the question: “What would be possible if one had the independent means to pioneer new ways for young people to acquire a broader range of skills to better prepare them for the future?”
His answer was the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, an independent, public interest and not-for-profit organisation.
Its aim is “to benefit the Australian community by stimulating innovation and educational developments”.
Through the work of the Forum, GJ Dusseldorp sought to make a tangible difference to the life chances of young Australians. He paid particular attention to those who through no fault of their own were unable to access educational opportunities that would help them shape their own future.
Dick’s working life inspired the Forum’s philosophy of collaboration. He was driven to find collaborative solutions in difficult situations; to satisfy real needs by finding the common interest between disparate stakeholders. Ultimately, these solutions would deliver more to each party over time.
“The forum idea was absolutely crucial in his thinking,” Dick’s eldest son, Tjerk Dusseldorp recalls. “You gather people on that platform who come from different needs and perspectives, and you work out – just as he had once done with his industrial relations works, or his customer work – you then work out smart solutions that meet the needs and have support.”
The Forum’s work has always been shaped by the passions of its people.
Dick Dusseldorp, the Forum’s founding Chairman, was committed to ethics in business, courage in decision-making and innovation in projects, actions which were imbued with a strong vision of social responsibility.
“His experience,” according to one Board member, “was palpable for all to see. He was terrifically principled, with well-meaning objectives. He was a such a force of nature.”
An important component of the Forum’s success has been its’ dedicated Board of Trustees, defined by Dick as “a council of critical friends, keeping the Forum on track”. These “critical friends” have been drawn from diverse areas of expertise and experience, including, for the Forum’s first years, colleagues of Dick at Lend Lease.
Tjerk Dusseldorp and Kerrie Stevens formed the leadership team at the Forum. Tjerk was Executive Director and known by the team as “the ideas man”, while Kerrie was General Manager and regarded as “the translator, who turned ideas into reality and held it all together. She was the absolute glue”. This successful working partnership continued for more than 20 years.
“What would be possible if one had the independent means to pioneer new ways for young people to acquire a broader range of skills to better prepare them for the future?”
Key contributors to the Forum’s work and success over the past 25 years include:
Richard Sweet, who later worked with the OECD and is an international education and training policy consultant, was the Forum’s first Research Co-ordinator.
Eric Sidoti, specialist in public policy development and now Director of the Whitlam Institute, led the Forum’s strategy for 15 years.
Dr John Spierings, an education specialist and later a senior advisor in the Office of the Prime Minister, led the Forum’s research agenda for 10 years.
Lesley Tobin, a teacher who first worked with the Forum in 1994 and stayed on for 18 years, responsible for a series of demonstration pilots and programs across the country.
Judy Turnbull, long-term project manager with the Forum, went on to set up her own social sustainability enterprise.
However, it was not only these integral team members; there are many other contributors and collaborators who gave the rigour essential to the Forum’s contributions to innovation in educational reform, cutting-edge research and government policy development.
“The beauty of the Forum was that it was a small team doing big things,” said Eric Sidoti. “Always devoted to working in partnership, which gave rise to extraordinary learnings, they were prepared to take risks, they were prepared to do things their own way and it had preparedness to fail.”
The key to the Forum’s success has been its independence; it is not beholden to outside interests or government grants.
As Tjerk concluded when accepting his honorary doctorate from RMIT University in 2009: “The Forum’s competitive advantage has been our independence, which has given us the ability to cross the sectoral and organisational divides to harness the very best heads, hands and hearts around developing innovative solutions to entrenched problems and barriers.”
While it is difficult to summarise a quarter of century of work, the following are some of the Forum’s major achievements:
- National rollout of vocational education - The national vocational TRAC program, pioneered by the Forum in the 1990s, focused on the learning needs of young people who were not destined for tertiary education but who faced the intractable problem of youth unemployment. The ingenuity and success of this initiative paved the way for the establishment of the Australian Student Traineeship Foundation in 1994 and the federal government’s commitment of $38 million over four years to embed quality VET in schools. This helped to ensure that the majority of young people across Australia now have a vocational career pathway that begins while they are still at school. Read more.
- Youth Transitions on the national agenda - Landmark research projects such as Reality and Risk, the Deepening Divide and the annual How Young People Are Faring comprehensively put the issue of poor youth transitions from school to work and the social and economic cost of youth disengagement on the national policy agenda. Through the National Youth Commitment, Dusseldorp advocated for a guarantee that all young people have access to complete Year 12 or its equivalent or a job with training facilitated by local community partnerships. This work set the seeds for reforms across the states and the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions agreed by COAG in 2009. Read more.
- Championing alternative learning - Through Learning Choices the Forum focused on those young people marginalised from traditional schooling and championed the practitioners and the multitude of innovative strategies that they have developed to engage young people in learning outside mainstream education. Ten years later, demand for these Learning Choices continues to grow as they support some of our more disadvantaged young people and offer vital pathways for them to remain engaged in learning and connect with further education, training and employment. Read more.
- Workforce skills development - The Forum’s work with WorldSkills over 25 years has continued to promote skills recognition and the best skill development practices for the benefit of thousands of young people nationally and internationally. It’s a testament to this work that workforce skills formation is now widely recognised as being central to economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Read more.
In 2012, after serving on the Board for several years, Teya Dusseldorp, Tjerk’s eldest daughter, became Executive Director. Under her leadership the Forum has shifted from a focus on vocational education and skills development, to a broader focus on learning approaches that ensure greater engagement and equitable educational opportunities for all young Australians . To reflect this, Dusseldorp Skills Forum changed its name to Dusseldorp Forum.
“Developing skills for meaningful employment remains an important goal. However, the Forum’s work in 2016 emphasises the link between health, education, social and economic factors when considering the ability of young people to thrive. Our focus is on improving the lives of vulnerable children and young people living in communities that experience recurring hardship. We believe all young Australians deserve the opportunities to create a fulfilling start in life.”