Future Ready: Is NZ future ready?

Five years after my niece Emma graduates with her degree in engineering, she may be earning $60,000 year. She’s only 14 now so nothing’s set in stone. Last week she wanted to be clothing designer for which, if she’s lucky enough to score job at all, she may gross $42,000 five years post-graduation. The week before, she was dedicating her life to saving kittens. If she becomes vet she may make $74,000. If she ends up volunteering at the SPCA she’ll do it for love.
Her choice may dictate whether she strives or thrives economically. Year by year, our tertiary education sector nurtures and challenges many of our most promising young people as they transition from school to employment.
Emma and myriad other young dreamers will shape the future face of our nation and drive our aspirations in global talent war to ensure the brightest talents engage with future-thinking local organisations.

Yet, for many, their first steps into full-time employment see them fall into no-man’s land in which their lack of commercial experience and sometimes mismatched areas of expertise require business organisations to make significant injections of time and faith before they can receive much meaningful value in return.

A case in point: one business leader tells of an IT graduate who knew the history of the computer but remained unaware of the most recent and significant developments in software. Smart and well-intentioned? Certainly. Career-ready? Not hope.
Now, increasing numbers of government, business and academic leaders are questioning the way we prioritise the most relevant sectors of the economy in order to drive future economic growth. Are we, they want to know, putting the most appropriate skills in place to support growth in those areas?

Many now argue we’re approaching tipping point in the future of higher education. They are calling for new models and measures around how our tertiary education sector interacts with the business community. In short, they say, it’s time to reimagine employability.
“If we were going to design tertiary education system for the 21st century,” asks Unitec CEO Dr Rick Ede, “would we design what we’ve got now or create something quite different?”
In Ede’s view “clear disconnect” is emerging between the business community’s needs and expectations, and the reality of what the education sector is delivering.
“There are real questions around how we blur the learning/business interface,” he says. “Things have to change.”

Ede was speaking at the Higher Education Summit held in Auckland recently. Beyond academic circles, business leaders too are issuing wake-up call to fast-track what they see as some positive moves in the right direction.
Business NZ CEO Phil O’Reilly has issued hurry-up to tertiary education providers and business alike to intensify efforts to rethink, remodel and revitalise the talent pipeline in critical sectors of our economy.

“My sense is, it’s going in the right direction,” he says, “but we need to go much harder, faster and more energetically in order to get there.”
Ede acknowledges the growing divide between what the tertiary sector provides and what business wants can be great place from which to lob rocks at each other across the fence.
“In reality, it means both business and education need to change the way they think about the problem and the way they work together,” he says.
Problem is, while there’s now willingness on both sides to engage more, there’s still question mark around how to do it.

According to recent Ministry of Education report, each year around 24,000 students complete bachelors degree in the New Zealand tertiary education system. The majority of them graduate from universities. Polytechnics produce between 15 and 18 percent of our graduates each year. Wananga produce three percent of our bachelor graduates and private training establishments four percent.
On top of this, each year further 4000 to 5000 students complete graduate certificate or diploma. Then there are the around 4000 masters and 1000 doctoral students: although, as one industry insider commented, “such students are often too theoretical, which makes the problem even worse for business”.

Working alongside industry trainers, education providers, industry groups and employers, government agencies have already made significant strides towards helping students get better grip on how to work towards specific careers. They’re also providing insights into what kind of salary job-seekers are likely to make when they score particular role in the workforce. (See box story “Reports map progress”.)

There have been some notable successes in engineering, for example, sector widely tagged as critical for New Zealand’s economic future. couple of years ago Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) and Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec), teamed up to lift their game in attracting and retaining students to study engineering.

VUW vice-chancellor professor Pat Walsh says that among raft of other changes, the institutions now target students and their influencers through range of media including repurposed website, booklets, posters, and resources used in electronics and technology programmes. The underpinning message is that there’s potential career pathway ahead.
WelTec has also set up an engineering foundation course to try to offset generally poor preparation in the topic at secondary schools. (The Government does not fund foundation level courses at universities.)

To strengthen sense of belonging to an engineering community the institutions now provide financial support to student engineering clubs. They also help provide an engineering “uniform” that has enjoyed huge uptake by both students and staff.
Walsh says results from the Weltec course and other initiatives have been extremely positive. Engineering enrolments at VUW climbed 36 percent between 2011 and 2012. Enrolments in the WelTec BEngTech degree nearly doubled from 2010 to 2012.

Engineering, information technology and science feature on most agencies’ must-have lists for future-ready New Zealand.
The Government intends that by 2017 55 percent of 25-34 year-olds will have qualification at NCEA Level 4 or above. It also aims for 85 percent of 18 year-olds to have achieved NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification (it was 74 percent in 2011).

Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) chief executive Kim Campbell says his 8000 member organisations frequently report shortages of graduates with hard technical skills “right across the range whether it’s lab science, bench chemistry or electronic stuff”.
In NZ Herald opinion piece earlier this year expatriate New Zealand businessman and philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn said we must focus on dairy, IT, biotechnology, sustainable energy development, responsible mining and niche manufacturing.

His list gets the backing of Ryan Recruitment MD Felicity Ryan who with 30 years’ experience matching graduates to business says she has been witnessing “for long time now” shortages in engineering, technical and some accounting expertise.

There’s also an inverse argument for graduates with any sort of degree that pushes them to think laterally and independently, be it about culture, criminology or custard. No-one knows for sure the exact hard skills required in future years but you can bet the bank that key attributes such as innovative thinking will build in the flexibility and smarts needed, irrespective of economic ups and downs.

Soft skills
Yet even if we channelled all tertiary students into clearly identified courses to drive success in number of specified sectors – and no-one is suggesting we do – business leaders still report most of their problems lie in finding graduates with sufficiently robust set of soft skills to make them employable.

They’re talking about what the EMA’s Campbell calls citizenship skills: tu

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