Why separate education from work?

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By Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams


Apprenticeships are back, and it’s about time too. New Zealand — like quite a few other places — is remembering that we used to take many of our young people straight into the workforce from out of school, under the wing of a skilled person, and give them a trade to forge out a career, make a decent living, and secure the future of the industry.

Apprenticeships teach people the right skills in real world situations. They save taxpayers a bundle, and help our young people avoid the trap of student debt.

We need more apprentices. And for every apprentice, we need an employer. It’s employers that take on apprentices, and it’s employers’ time and commitment that develops the skilled workforce we all rely on.

We know it’s a commitment, especially in the early months and years when new trainees and apprentices are just learning how to fit in at work, let alone be productive in your business.

We’re working closely with the new government on how its “first-year free” policy will support employers with the first years in the apprenticeship system.

This year marks 25 years of the Industry Training Organisation (ITO) system and, looking around the world, it has been one of the most stable and successful vocational training systems.

ITOs provide access to quality assured training in businesses large and small, linked to qualifications that are nationally and internationally recognised. They work with employers and training providers to make sure people get the right skills and get qualified.

We now have the same proportion of apprentices (43,000) in the New Zealand workforce now as we did in the 1980s. And on top of apprentices, we have more than 100,000 traineeships in 25,000 wide-ranging New Zealand businesses.

We reckon it’s time for companies, communities, schools, and mums and dads to question the sense behind separating education from work — is this the best way to meet our future skills needs? Does holding young people back from the workforce until their mid-20s do us or them any financial favours?

Let’s get them going in the world of work, so they can discover what sort of work aligns with their talents and interests, and then we can add the skills as and where and when they are needed.

You can always get that degree later should you feel the need, and when you are in a better position to afford it.

If our young people are going to be in a high-tech workforce for 50 years doing lots of different things, how does giving them big expensive qualifications before they’ve even got their foot in the door make them more employable or future-proof?

Some employers wait for the education system to get it right and complain that it never does. They say they don’t have time to start people from scratch, but they end up doing just that.

But employers who take on trainees and apprentices are being the education system. Workplaces are the best classrooms, with real equipment and settings, giving people technical and employability skills.

Employers don’t just train people for the job but for the industry, creating highly productive and employable workers.

Don’t get me wrong — education institutions and training providers have a big role to play, helping people to train and retrain, or to step up or change their career.

They work with employers to do the bits that are handled better off the job — basics, underpinning theory, the critical thing you need but doesn’t happen in that firm, and not to forget the cutting edge, the high-end research, increasing automation and how we respond. It all adds up to skills.

Think back for a second. Back in the day when you were green as grass, someone gave you a chance. I bet you can remember their name. They set you on this path, and they weren’t just helping you, they were keeping the industry afloat for the next generation.

So at a time when business is booming and skills are short, it’s time to give a young person a chance. Take on an apprentice today.