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Digging for a solution

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.7, 27 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Hi Ho Hi Ho , Its off to work we go!!

It wasn’t just Dopey, Grumpy Sleepy and their mates that sang this refrain – it was pretty well the chorus from everyone who once left school. From the late 1940’s through to the late 1960’s New Zealand achieved pretty well full employment and young people knew that ahead of them lay work.

That all changed when New Zealand decided that 6% unemployment would be something of an acceptable going rate and the dream that New Zealand kids had of slinging their metaphorical shovels over their shoulders and marching down into the mine with the Seven Dwarfs was over. Little wonder then that at a time of real crisis there should be a gathering to address the issue of employment – instead of going down to the coalface the wise ones head for the summit.

There is in our community a significant group of people for whom “economic crisis” is not an event but an environment in which they live every day of their lives.

The current focus on saving jobs for those already in work, on retraining those whose jobs are at risk and on finding positive activity for those with days on which there is no work is responsible and right. But they will be actions that address the here and now, a response to a crisis at one point in time.

Underlying this is an ongoing and more fundamental economic crisis that will not be addressed by these actions and which will one day prove to be the defining crisis – too many of our young people are not only unemployed they are also unemployable. Such young people are clustered into communities of disadvantage with all the issues that this brings – violence, poor housing, bad health and a lack of social cohesion that all have a cost associated with them.

Department of Labour figures show that the Auckland region is home to 35% of the young people in New Zealand. In Counties Manukau there is a concentration of young Maori and a third of all young Pacific people live in this region. With 17% youth employment in this region, the issue is not that the current crisis will take people out of work but that even when we are not in crisis we get too few people into work, especially young people.

The figures quoted above are from 2006, a time of robust levels of employment in New Zealand. With overall unemployment figures now expected to reach double figures, this issue will escalate quickly. Young people in Manukau, 48% of them, work in businesses that have over 100 employees. When such companies take a hit (such as that seen recently at Fisher and Paykel) the impact is serious.

There is in New Zealand up to 25,000 young people who are NEET – not in employment education or training. These people exit the education system without a pathway into further education and training and in most cases without the skills to enter employment. Not all stay out of work but the road into employment for those who need a second chance at preparing themselves is painful and expensive. The cost to the individual is significant and the cost to the country even greater.

A recent Ministry of Social Development report, Youth Transitions Series 2003,  points to “those who are inactive for prolonged periods of time have a heightened risk of poor outcomes including: lower earnings; greater reliance on social assistance; and higher rates of unemployment, criminal offending, substance abuse, teenage fertility, suicide, homelessness and mental or physical ill health.” If not a powder keg, inactivity is at least a potent and dangerous brew.

The seemingly worthy goal of preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist is something of a luxury when young people are not prepared for jobs that do exist! And the task is one that cannot solely be the responsibility of the formal education system. Those with inactive parents are likely themselves to be inactive. The social construct called “the disadvantaged community” is discouraging to those on the margins of engagement.

Employment is not a pair of socks that you put on when your toes get cold or something that you clip on your belt when the whim to work takes you. It is the result of a long process in which three dots must be connected.

The first of these is access to two years of quality early childhood education. Longitudinal studies show that the advantage of this remains with young people throughout their formal schooling. The second is the completion of secondary school – those who disengage at some point in their secondary schooling are immediately at risk. Completing secondary school makes it more likely that a young person will go on the complete a postsecondary qualification, the third dot. Connecting those dots creates the desire to work and the ethic required to sustain employment.

Long term, the solution to the economic crisis is tied up in these three key dots. We simply must minimise the supply of those who fuel economic crisis by their inability to contribute productively. Yes there will also be those who need a helping hand but we could also do this better if we have eliminated the waste of human resources that we currently see.

It would be tragic if in addressing the issues of an economic crisis for which global causes are blamed, we failed to see the home grown crisis steadily but not so quietly creeping up on us. Our ability to sustain an economy of the kind that has brought a sound standard of living and a life with prospects to most (but not all) New Zealanders relies both on our getting through the immediate crisis and our willingness to tackle the larger and more fundamental crisis of youth unemployment.

That family of countries I have written about so often – New Zealand, Australia, Canada. United States and Great Britain – share a grim statistic outside of education but not unrelated to it. Around the period 2025 – 2030, they will reach zero or even negative growth in the working age population. There will be fierce international competition for skilled young people. Will we be ready? Or should we carry on and just whistle while we work? 

Published inEducation

One Comment

  1. Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn’t express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

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