Stepping off the summit

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.8, 6 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The recent job summit focussed predominantly on the here and now as it should indeed have done so.

A recent report published by the Committee for Auckland – “Growing Auckland Growing New Zealand” – gives cause for us to think that we should also focus on the medium term. We baby boomers are in our working prime but will soon start to exit the workforce in significant numbers. In fact a pattern has already been detected where more are leaving the workforce than are joining it. Bernard Salt, leading Australian commentator on demographic trends, calls the period when this figure approaches and then reaches zero, perhaps dips into negative territory and then pulls slowly back into a positive position, the demographic faultline.

New Zealand’s demographic faultline will occur in New Zealand between 2022 and 2032. That’s not that far away. During that, we will simply be unable to renew our workforce. As people leave they will be unable to be replaced. Other, that is, than by immigration.

The issue with this is that countries that experienced the baby boom will all experience the demographic fault-line at about the same time. During that period, competition for immigrants will be fierce.

Immigration will solve our problems will be the cry. It might well do so but how good are we at managing immigration and immigrants?

Well, we can attract educated immigrants. In fact, as a group, foreign-born New Zealanders are more highly educated than native-born New Zealanders. New Zealand attracts the educated and talented migrant. Rather than there being a brain drain, there is a brain gain. In terms of secondary education and at the bachelor degree level, New Zealanders born overseas are more highly qualified than those born in New Zealand.

But there is a catch to all this. Foreign-born New Zealanders are twice as likely to be unemployed. And we all know the stories – taxis driven by qualified medical doctors, qualified nurses emptying bed-pans in old folk’s homes. We attract immigrant talent but then waste it. Why do we do this?

Partly it is because of a completely foolish attitude towards English spoken with an accent. Hundreds of nurses who can speak English well are not allowed to practice their vocation because it has been decided that an irrelevant English language test has more validity than sound training programmes, experience and commitment. The only valid test would be one based on the English needed to be a nurse, or an engineer, or a teacher. Sitting a generalised test of English language is not a test of language in the real world other than in the real world of sitting a generalised test. Nurses, teachers and accountants are here and available to contribute but are locked out because of these attitudes. There should be an enquiry into this.

It has been reported that if Canada were to solve the issue of unrecognised qualifications it would mean an additional $4.1 – 5.9 billion of income each year. I wonder what the gains would be to New Zealand. Do we even want to know?

I frequently hear employers complaining of the need to recruit new staff from overseas. Are qualified migrant workers here being overlooked or being placed into work that is well below their qualification level?

Then there is the matter of the young ones. One response to the threat of the demographic faultline waiting out there for us in about 12 years time would be to solve the issue of young New Zealanders, both native born and foreign born, who slip through school without achieving, who disengage from learning and who become a liability rather than an asset. If the NEET estimates are right, the 25,000 young people not in employment education or training could be very handy when we get short of workers.

That should be a goal.

The one thing we know about an economic crisis is that after the downturn comes the recovery. The current declining employment opportunities present an opportunity for some creative thinking about the work force and how to nourish it.

A very good thing about the job summit was that ROSLA (raising of the school leaving age) never made an appearance. School leaving ages have never worked and raising it never results in higher standards achievement. Quite the reverse. Proportionately fewer 16 year olds are engaged in schools now with the leaving age at 16-years than was the case when the leaving age was 15-years.

Jurisdictions that raise school leaving ages (for this read Australian states and the good old UK) have simply run out of ideas.

What is needed is a legally enforceable education and training requirement up to the age of 20 with an employment requirement for two years after that. And this should be monitored. Other countries do this and so should we. Most young people will be engaged and require only the lightest of monitoring. The hard core will require insistent and clear monitoring.

 Perhaps another area would be that of the students in summer employment. This year could be tough with fewer jobs available. Local authorities and tertiary institutions could be harnessed on this one. Creative employment that enhances communities and institutions would be paid with a $4,000 scholarship that can only be cashed up for the following years tuition fees. The University of Auckland has suggested that research would be an area with many opportunities for such a scheme.

Keeping students out of the conventional workforce this year would probably be a useful move.

Harnessing the skills of foreign born New Zealanders. Education and training release time. Innovative student holiday employment schemes. Increased management training. And so on. And so forth.

There are lots of ways we could get this country working

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