Now We Need A Skills Strategy

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Vocational training is needed now more than ever before and will help get New Zealand – and the Wellington region – into economic recovery in a post-COVID world.

The crucial role vocational education will play in rejuvenating the economy was recognised by the Government this month with the announcement of funding that will pay for Kiwis of all ages to undertake vocational education and training.

The challenge posed by COVID-19 was unprecedented. The New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology, which merged all 16 existing polytechnics, was launched in the midst of lockdown on April 1.

Like other learning institutes, Whitireia and WelTec had an unintentional crash course in providing more flexible learning. Understandably, a lot of additional demands were placed on staff and students, but positives also arose. We were forced to think outside the classroom and so realised how nimble we can be in delivering our training.

Within a three-week period, we placed about 80 per cent of our learning programme online for remote access by students.

Whitireia and WelTec were already offering some blended learning but the COVID measures have fast-tracked that and been a real catalyst for change. As a result, we now have the tools to be better integrated into an active workforce: more remote learning allows people to keep working and earning while learning. It makes engaging in vocational education much easier for both students and employers wanting to upskill or reskill their staff.

We don’t want to be a fully online place of learning, as our practical hands-on training and work placements are core to who we are and what we provide. However, there are elements from the COVID measures that we will retain to maximise accessible training.

We’ve certainly still got more work to do. Degree apprenticeships, which blend university and polytechnic approaches to tertiary education, are an example. The traditional university degree requires young people to take a number of years out of work while they study, while the traditional apprenticeship model for trades has people learning and earning as they qualify.

The degree apprenticeship closes that gap as it provides a degree-level education for people who are working.

Another important objective is around encouraging employers to retain apprentices during economic downturns rather than laying them off. We could use any downtime to put apprentices in the classroom while they still earn an income. When the economy picks up, they will have all the theory and be ready to return to the practical side of the apprenticeship.

Other elements we are looking at are more after-hours classes and micro-credentials. The latter certify achievement of skills and knowledge based on strong evidence of need by industry, employers, iwi and/or the community. These small chunks of learning might be the difference between someone sitting at home and someone getting work.

Our ability to identify those learning gaps that Wellington region employers need filling will be crucial to all these changes having positive impacts on our communities and economy. Currently, we don’t have a Wellington regional skills strategy. Such a strategy is critical for 2020 and beyond. It must look at the skillsets our region requires and work out how we can provide solutions in a coordinated manner. We require a robust programme of learning that meets our employers’ and communities’ needs plus complements existing qualifications.

This is an exciting time for our sector and for Whitireia and WelTec. There’s an opportunity to expand exponentially. We are ready for that growth and want to help create a society where everyone can access tertiary training or retraining if they want to, and when they want to, regardless of the other responsibilities in their lives.

Mark Oldershaw - Chief Executive of Whitieria and Weltec