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A roadmap to bridge the skills gap

author:Mark Oldershaw, CEO, Industry Training Federation

New Zealand’s ‘skills shortages’ are predicted to widen. Business NZ has called it a drag on the economy, stating educational institutions will struggle to match the supply of graduates with real labour market needs.

New Zealand’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector universally agrees. To keep up with economic, technological and global challenges, we need to be smarter, quicker and more efficient at developing qualifications that employers want, to produce employable trainees.

There is a massive pool of talent amongst the 70% of school leavers who do not attend university. To channel this talent into our future workforce, education and training must be based on labour market needs.

The building and construction skills gap could have been predicted, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch. But as a country we haven’t moved fast enough and we are now in dire need of around 5,000 more building apprentices.

Aged care is a sector where we can predict future labour shortages as the rapidly ageing population needs support from qualified workers. This is something we can respond to now in a timely and tailored way.

Our current system is disconnected. Not only do we lack industry leadership, the VET sector is silo’ed within itself, with polytechnics and Institutes of Technology, Private Training Establishments, and Industry Training Organisations all separately and differently funded, measured and managed.

We need a cohesive system that supports collaboration over competition. The first step is to make it easier for industry to connect, and historically this has been hard to achieve. Barriers for employers include time, cost and complexity.

Auckland’s ‘workforce roadmap’, a statement from Auckland’s construction industry to the vocational education sector, could be a breakthrough. This work has been guided by Graham Hodge, Development Manager for an Alliance of tertiary education providers in the wider Auckland area (BCITO, Connexis, Competenz, Skills, Manukau Institute of Technology and Unitec).

"The tertiary education sector collectively has not been as well connected to industry as it should be," says Hodge. "We need to ensure the qualifications we offer are better aligned to future workforce needs and to do this we must listen closely and carefully to industry.

"Once, we find out what the industry needs, we can plan how to deliver qualifications which are just proxies for skills," says Hodge. "And employers need a balance of workers in all relevant occupations with the right skills."

Major industry partners have bought in to the plan. Fletcher; Hawkins; Naylor Love Construction; Dominion Constructors Ltd; the NZ Transport Agency; and the Auckland Council are jointly sponsoring the workforce roadmap development. Industry ownership will guide which skills are needed in which jobs for the next five years.

"It is now up to us to deliver," says Unitec’s Chief Executive Rick Ede, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of tertiary providers in Auckland. "This is about planning ahead to avoid shortages and ensure school leavers understand their career path opportunities. Funding from TEC must be aligned to the roadmap."

This project sets a direction for other sectors to follow. Learning should not take place in isolation. It must be linked to real life: skills, jobs, career development and economic growth.

A well functioning vocational education sector would incorporate three key changes.

1. New performance indicators based on real-life results: jobs or career advancement.

2. A cohesive system, combining the strengths of industry, government and training providers.

3. Flexible funding that does not favour the method of delivering the training but rather the ‘outcomes’ that employers want. Criteria needs to be simplified and barriers removed.

If we follow in the direction of Auckland’s workforce roadmap, we can boost our skilled workforce, our collective productivity, and our economic growth.

The ITF is a voluntary membership organisation representing all of New Zealand's Government funded Industry Training Organisations.

See 2012