Opinion Leaders Time to Trade Up

How often do we hear the claim from business of “skills shortage”? I am personally aware of this problem in my (manufacturing) industry. Regrettably I have been obliged to recruit aluminium welders from overseas because New Zealanders with these skills have not applied for the vacancies, and without them my business would not grow!
There has been considerable discussion from business about the New Zealand education system and how well it currently serves the economy and the country.
Comments range from the Young Enterprise Scheme run by the Enterprise NZ Trust (see Peter Shirtcliffe’s opinion in September 2003 Management), to the concerns that employers have to deal with employees with little or no numeracy or literacy skills.
Whilst I acknowledge who benefits that accrue to those students that are involved in the Young Enterprise Scheme, these young entrepreneurs are essentially drawn from the ‘professional’ stream. What these admirable programmes do is contribute real commercial dimension to what is
‘otherwise’ an ‘academic’ learning experience.
We now have over 50,000 students leave secondary school each year, and many either enter the workforce or go on to tertiary courses. And yes, they need the right attitude to succeed in life, and an ‘enterprise’ culture to do well in their chosen career or profession. Sadly, nearly 10,000 leave with no formal qualifications.
I have real concerns for those young men and women who are not academically motivated and prefer to express themselves through other attributes, like using their hands rather than their head. These individuals are naturally dexterous, and like making or creating ‘things’. They are tomorrow’s tradespeople, who craft aluminium, metals, wood, and plastic, or who service aircraft and automobiles, or build houses, install electricity supplies, cook gourmet meals, become graphic artists or product designers, or who create works of art for others to enjoy.
As young person I was fortunate enough to attend technical high school. I was completely at home in its well-equipped workshops. It was this ‘hands-on’ opportunity to discover my technical abilities that gave me the desire to work in the metal fabrication industry. The rest, you might say, is history. I dare say I was not in the ‘academic’ stream at college, but that was not limitation. I was inspired by the classes and ‘workshops’ experience and by dedicated teachers.
With growing concern I now watch these well-equipped workshops stripped of their machines and tools, and the teaching of ‘technology’ delivered on bare desktop. Technology is now process of thinking rather than doing the ‘practical’.
This move alienates those students who are not academically inclined, and they often fall by the wayside, due to lack of stimulation and interest. One college I visited recently has rejected the new technology approach and has opened wonderfully equipped Applied Technology Centre with bank of lathes and welding bays. Pupils have access to excellent tools and machinery. They are working with industry, not just to provide relevant skills to their students, but to give them work experience and probably an early future career. The results have been remarkable. Technology classes are growing, the students are keen and motivated and, several of the automotive class students were offered positions during the school year.
This college, relatively high-decile school, has convinced growing number of its pupils (and parents) that despite socially negative perceptions, trades are not only career choice, but offer excellent prospects of good wages or contracts and, in time, ownership of business. What’s more, there is often little or no monkey of huge student debt to carry forward.
I am concerned that whilst we still appear to have buoyant domestic economy, spurred on by readily available credit for housing, care and other consumables, we have serious downturn in our export earnings. Much of this activity, encouraged by cheap imports and clever marketing, cannot be sustained at current levels if our manufacturing export base continues to shrink.
Trades training is now an urgent priority – ahead of free trade negotiations, knowledge waves and leading-edge mantras. We must put ‘prestige’ back into the trades, quickly train tomorrow’s tradespeople and re-profile the activity. Let’s not put all our enterprise efforts into producing more clever marketers who often prefer to push even more imports onto susceptible Kiwi consumers. New Zealand has turned from being an export-driven country, to an increasingly import-led consumer society.
Let’s concentrate more on trades competency and give it the same social standing as that enjoyed by the professions. M

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