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Catching the trade winds


Stuart Middleton


15 February 2010

 It was good to hear new Minister of Tertiary Education Steven Joyce, in an early statement about his priorities, emphasise the importance of trades. More heartening was his recognition that the real issue was to engage many more young people in trades training at an earlier point in their education journey.

We have had three decades of opportunities destroyed. Generally this has been because of the unintended consequences of actions taken to pursue some other perceived good. But as a country we have simply been dumb in both senses of the word to allow this to happen and to fail to intervene.

Take for example the shifting of technical education from darkness into daylight. Once upon a time night classes were a key site for technical and vocational education. Young people (and some others) would work during the day and then attend to their qualifications at night. We talk earnestly about earning and learning forgetting that once it was possible.

But the development of polytechnics saw such training increasingly become a daylight activity. To allow this to happen for people in work, block courses were invented. Discontinuous learning is less effective. Why are we surprised at low pass rates?

Another issue. Credential creep has seen the entry level for professions go up and up. For instance the entry level qualifications of primary teachers entering training were initially two School Certificate subjects, then a year in Form 6 was added. The proportion entering teaching that held university entrance hovered between 40% and 50% through the fifties to only slightly increase in the sixties. Now you require a university degree. Were teachers of that earlier generation less well qualified than the current teaching force?

Accountants used to come into the job with a smattering of commercial practice and some book-keeping. Now the Bachelor of Business degree is the starting point. Does business perform any better?

Nursing and a host of other occupations have gone down similar tracks. Why? Well the answer might be to do with pay equity and the strange belief that pay should somehow be glued to qualifications.

Then there was the demise of apprenticeships. The government through its agencies such as the Railways, Post and Telegraph, Public Works. Tourism and Hospitality Corporation, the Armed Services was the employer of 80% of New Zealand’s apprenticeships. When the government decreased its involvement in the economy during the 1980’s it took the apprenticeship system down with it. All attempts to find ways of reviving the robust scheme we once had have been disappointing in terms of the results achieved.

That is because these replacement schemes don’t reflect the basic elements of an apprenticeship. Central is the master-tradesperson relationship with the novice. The trade was learnt from the experienced and wise exponent of the trade in the real setting of the job, under the pressures and conditions of doing the job and working for real bosses who had real clients. Theory developed out of practice and was not a disintegrated part of the programme.

Entry levels to apprenticeships were also pretty low compared to the requirements today. Many school leavers with basic skills (but not always) would find themselves in an apprenticeship – “Go and sit over there next to Tom / Nellie – they’ll show you the ropes.” And these young people would be inducted into work and a majority of cases a transition into education and training would result. Businesses in those days knew they had a role to play and they played it well. Do they still have this sense of responsibility? There were other schemes that worked alongside all this – the Maori Trades Training Scheme for instance.

You can’t and wouldn’t want to re-invent the past but we would do well to consider the principles that underpinned the practices of trades training in the past and seriously consider re-expressing them in a modern setting.

To be fair, there are forces that simply reflect a changing world that impact on vocational training. Technology has had an impact on office work and manufacturing although the biggest impact on manufacturing has been the exporting of our factories rather than the products they produce. The changing demographics continue to pose huge challenges to our education system which seems not able to maintain the supply of young people able to enter the work force.

There has been a general removal of unskilled work from the opportunities young people can access. Older people now do the work that was the domain of young people – delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, running messages, helping out in shops and so on. And there might have been a change of values with regard to low skilled and unskilled work. Once being in work was valued much more highly that was the kind of work you did. Being unemployed was rare and greatly to be avoided.

Now everyone wants to be the brain surgeon, the highly skilled engineer, the flamboyant lawyer or the astronaut. This reflects the inexorable drive to sell the view that more schooling is the answer. The blind belief in an elongated general education is just that – there is little evidence that reducing pathways for young people increases the options they face. There is also little evidence that staying in a school system until the age of 19 years benefits every student. There is overwhelming evidence that staying in education and training does.

The evidence is clearly telling us that young people need greatly increased and flexible pathways at a much younger age. Getting to conventional higher education has for a long time (but not always) required the long path of schooling. Have we the wit to understand that we have headed off in a direction who might not be working for those headed towards the trades?

Some of those new and flexible pathways for younger people have got to lead them into the trades.

Published inEducation

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