The Need To Grow Our Own

6 August 2019

Last week’s announcement by government on its plans to reshape our vocational education system contained a lot of ‘the right words’ to show that Chris Hipkins is on the right track. Tackling the polytech’s unsustainable financial position is a necessary first step, and the intent to make the system more responsive to industry needs is laudable, as is the recognition of the challenges vocational education and training are facing in our transition into the digital age.

There are still some fundamental questions that need better and more clearly defined answers. Such as how handing over the responsibility for pastoral care for apprentices to education and training providers – tertiary education organisations (TEOs) – will work, when a lack of such pastoral care even under the current system is probably one of the root causes underlying poor apprenticeship completion rates for those not taken under the wings of a Group Training Scheme. We regularly hear from manufacturers that they are -or would be – happy to play their part in training apprentices – but not to “play mum and dad for them as well”.

Returning to the situation manufacturers face today, and underlined again in a recent workshop for production managers we ran in Christchurch, many of us face a critical shortage of employees with the right skills across a range of roles, combining technical with leadership skills. And we have good reason to be concerned that those shortages will get worse as we continue our journey into manufacturing in the digital age. We have to be clear that the reforms announced by government won’t provide much relief for our skills shortages in term of new entrants to manufacturing over the next 3 to 4 years, as changes to the system are being rolled out. And if everything goes well, we’ll get more people with the rights skills – but not the experience that’s also required.

To fill those roles where demand is outstripping supply, there are currently two main practices. Employing someone from another manufacturing business is one, find a suitable immigrant is another – albeit after having battled through an increasingly difficult and time-consuming immigration process. The former is a zero-sum game playing out locally, as is the latter, except our win is a loss in another manufacturing economy internationally. The people we are most short of are in short supply globally – technical skills at a more senior (technician) level, and/or team leaders and factory-floor managers with sufficient technical skills and experience. And it may well be only a matter of time before other manufacturing economies become a more attractive destination than New Zealand. China is starting to attract workers from the Philippines in some of their factories already, for example.

As difficult as it may seem or be, we need to look at the people we are already employing, assess them for their potential and discuss their career plans and expectations with them, and then invest in their training where appropriate. Being seen to care about employees’ career progression is also an important contribution to have happy – and productive – employees, the importance of which we mention elsewhere in this newsletter. Unfortunately, you’ll still be on your own and without much meaningful government support when it comes to training and upskilling your own employees on the job. For all the talk about the importance of life-long learning, the government’s focus in vocational education still is very much on off-premise training, and on preparing people for their first job in manufacturing. Nor do we have the large companies that warrant and can afford to develop sophisticated in-house training programmes, as it increasingly happens in Europe and Asia. Here, too, the answer to our ‘scale issue’ lies in collaboration, and we accept that there is a role for The Manufacturers’ Network in this space, facilitating the development of a collaborative resource to support in-house on-the-job training.