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Category: Employability

Standing by the till or a hand on the tiller!

There was a bit of a flutter last week when the Victoria University of Wellington students’ association publicly spoke out about “internships” and the exploitation of students.

One of the issues with internships is that the term has been captured up till now in New Zealand by only perhaps two employment areas – medicine and law. It has been a long established practice for hospitals and law firms to troll the top of the graduate pile in an effort to lure excellent students into their pool of employees.

But overseas the situation is very different and the work “intern” is applied not only to that sort of experience but also much more generally to describe a student working as an intern in order to get experience or sometimes undertaking work as part of a course requirement.

Internships therefore are not by definition paid positions necessarily. It is over to the employer to decide on these matters. The experience is the reward and will come to sit well in a CV. So why the grizzle that the interns were doing work which was important and mattered?

It is critical that the work be important and crucial that it matters. “Work experience” by and large has a bad name simply because it is neither of these two things. I note each time I am in Australia and see in the retail sector scared and timid school students, lapel-badged as a “work experience student” or a “trainee” standing by the till looking nervous while someone else does the work.  This is not “work experience” but simply a form of employment tourism.

In the 1990s I was Principal at a school close to Auckland Airport. Commercial students (for there was still then such a group) ran the Business Centre at the International Terminal dealing with the demands of international travellers. If they did this during school hours they were not paid, after-hours and weekends they were.  The Food Technology group working under the guidance of their teachers and a professional chef employed by the school operated a canteen that served up to 500 meals a day. The Special Needs Units were in charge of some gardens at the airport.

Now all of this was real world, real work for real people. The students immediately grasped the fact that if they didn’t do the work it would be undone. They appreciated that a satisfied customer was satisfied with them- conversely a grumpy customer …..!

Internships are no frivolous field trip. They offer to university graduates an opportunity to place some practical experience alongside the theory, to demonstrate personal skills suited to the workplace rather than simply to the classroom and lecture theatre. In the polytechnic setting they are appropriate to many levels from say diploma through to degrees and are best integrated into the programme. This requires institutions to see ways of allowing students to be “at work” in another real world from the reality of being in a programme in an institution.

It is clear that “intern” and “internships” will become more commonly seen as a valuable bridge between education and training that makes demands not only on the education and training institutions but also on employers and those who work with them. That is the challenge – are we all up to it?


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Working with business is good business for education

Back in the 1960’s when a student was clearly heading towards the wall there was usually one solution – find them a job!

The principal would be a member of the Rotary Club and that would be a port of call. Or the school would have built up a series of relationships. Usually the troubled (and troubling) young person was placed in an environment where they would be under the watchful eye of an experienced employee. A sort of “sit-over-there-next-to-Agnes-and-she-will-show-you-the-ropes” solution. But it worked.

Then it seemed as if in the late 1970s through to the end of the last century, education and employers went their own way.

When new relationships emerged in the 2000s something had changed and I have only just realized what it was. The relationships between employers and education were no longer about the students but were about the institutions. Marquee relationships were set up with businesses lending their names to buildings or developments.  Educators got to know employers again but it was about the institution and a more social set than about the business.

It is now time for a radical shake up in this. What we know is that in a multiple pathways environment, and these are emerging slowly, in which transitions are blurred, the relationship between employers and education needs to return to a shared responsibility for certain elements of the students journey. No, it is not about money, it is about placing the human resource that business has next to the human resource of education.

In the 1990s I was lucky enough to lead Aorere College at a time when a fledgling Auckland International Airport Ltd was seeking to explore its community relationships. Aorere College was seen as a good starting point. And so there developed over a period of time a portfolio of initiatives that included activities such as:

  •  a mentoring programme, “Airbridge”, which matched promising Year 10 students with AIAL executive staff for the last four years of the students’ schooling;
  • opportunities for the school choirs, among the very best in New Zealand at that time, to share in important events at the airport;
  • the “Commercial Department” ran the Business Centre in the international terminal 356 days a year with a mix of student and employed centre staff – great and real work experience;
  • the “Home Economics Dept” ran the cafeteria that served several hundred lunches to airport staff out of a commercial kitchen with an employed chef leading the work;
  • the special needs units had for a time responsibility for some of the gardens at the airport;
  • the AIAL had a representative on the Board of Trustees and I attended senior staff briefings at the Airport.

None of this involved truckloads of money changing hands. It was simply an excellent company and an excellent school going about their respective business but finding ways of working together with the students at the centre of each of the equations that drove the relationship.  And this was just one of the relationships the school had that was of this nature. The Manukau City Council was another major partner.

The MCC operated the schools grounds, long and well used by the community but always a little out of control (!), as part of their parks network. It was an arrangement that suited both parties, the school had a much more controlled use of the fields while the Council had an additional park on which to place users in an area which at that time was short of such spaces. Aorere was one of the first four technology secondary schools and this was a further area of cooperation for students and council staff to work together doing real work – students helping with the drawing up of development plans, the geography department surveying a rural water course for the council.

When Aorere College had an employers breakfast it would have over a hundred “partners” attend.

Now some of this was also happening elsewhere spurred along in some measure by an early initiative from the Secondary Principals of New Zealand (SPANZ) when it ran several conferences on Schools and Business. This received the usual push-back from some quarters.

But that was then and we now need to design the new relationships bearing in mind the core principles that drove the work back then.

  • it is about the students and not the institution
  • it is about the curriculum and learning;
  • it is about students experiencing real work not standing, scared, next to the till watching others do the work.

Whatever the level, secondary or tertiary, the relationships are not about money but are based on something much more valuable, long-lasting and precious, the wealth of human knowledge, willingness and social responsibility that is out there waiting for education to offer a hand of friendship.


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Working in the future now

Each time I hear someone claiming that we are preparing students for futures yet unknown to us, I wonder whether or not we have a basis for making this claim and whether it is in the interests of the students. “Waiting for the Future” seems to have the same level of hopelessness as “Waiting for Godot.”

But we can make some assessments of a likely future. Diane Ravitch, speaking at the conference I attended a couple of weeks ago noted that the future would in all likelihood have an increased emphasis on low wage jobs in healthcare, retail and restaurant services. Only 20% of jobs will require a bachelors degree or above. Despite this we continue to prepare students for middle class jobs – “We have,” she said, “lost our way”.

She mounted a huge case against the “pursuit of scores” which various policies – Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Racing to the Top” particular targets – and argued that gaining high test scores was only gained by drilling students and raising economic viability of schools.

“There is,” she thundered, “no skills shortage, only a jobs shortage.” The audience dutifully clapped and, it being in the south of the US there was much hootin’ and hollerin’. She continued her catalogue of grizzles, niggles and well-worn at the tired old targets. This was not the Diane Ravitch of old and she is honest about having changed her position on a lot of things. Good on her for this honesty.

Her address turns out to be essentially the first chapter of her latest book – “The Reign of Error”. This awaits me for a Christmas Holiday read.

But I did wonder about her claim that never have drop-out rates been lower in the US. I subsequently met no-one who could or was prepared to agree.

An interesting construction she placed on what was happening in the US was that people were “struggling to remain in the middle classes.” This was something that was repeated quite often not only in the conference but also in later meetings and discussions I had. The gap between low socio-economic groups and the middle classes was closing it seems not by raising those lower groups to a more comfortable position but by the middle classes losing their advantage. It would be interesting to see an analysis of NZ from this perspective.

But, back to the future. We prepare students for it not by waiting for it but by preparing them for the immediate future in a manner that sees the skills needed for life-long learning, for contributing to society as a worker, as a citizen, as a family member and as a well-rounded and able individual. In other words, there are jobs out there and young students should be able to go into them.

The challenge to education is that too many young people leaving schools have yet to acquire the skills, attributes, and disposition of an employment-ready prospect for an employer.

In the past it didn’t matter so much. Employers had lower expectations of entry-level workers who were often going into an apprenticeship where there was an expectation on both sides that they would be prepared to participate in the industry or profession.

And, I think this is important, there were many opportunities for young people with a modicum of get-up-and-go to work and demonstrate the attributes of a worker.

I had my first “job” at about the age of 8 as an “assistant” in my uncle’s grocery store – a benign and gentle start I will admit but I had to do the right thing and received 5 florins each Friday. Next came an opportunity when I was at intermediate school to work in a Hardware store during school holidays – packaging nails, and plaster of Paris, sweeping the floor and fetching and carrying and occasionally serving a customer (£1/10s per week).  At secondary working in school holidays in a sheep farm was the next step. More responsibility, expected to achieve certain critical tasks etc. The holiday employment when at University was, first, in the parks department in Hamilton at the cemetery working as a general factotum and asst. sector but I moved after that to five years of working with a drain layer.

There is nothing special about this. It was how things were. But the preparation for “real” employment happened long before I had a “real” job.

None of that is there now. All this work is done by adults. So it is over to educational institutions to build that preparation into the way they work so that young people are on the road to employment earlier than they realise and ready to go when the employer pulls the trigger on the starting gun.


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Doing what comes naturally… sometimes.

I watched a great American Football game on TV the other night between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. It was close, into the fourth quarter and the Giants had the ball. The two teams lined up on about the 50 yard mark. A snap pass back through the legs to the Giants quarterback and the forwards got into their dance of obstructing tackling and generally giving the running backs a chance to get up the field to receive the ball while at the same time making space for the quarterback to throw.

Hawking had run up the right hand touch and was approaching the in-goal area. He looked back over his shoulder to see the ball approaching high, it was going to go over his head. By now he was square on to the ball facing back up the field. He threw himself high into the air and backwards. His outstretched arm was out behind him and with impeccable judgment he caught the ball, blind, with three finger tips, crashed on his back to the ground and claimed a touchdown.

It was a miracle play that was to be replayed over and over and which will make highlights packages for years to come. The commentators voiced what everyone had thought. “How had he done that?” “Have you ever seen such a touchdown?” etc. etc.

But the real revelation came in the post-match interview with the coach and of course that play got plenty of mention. “How had he done that?” the host repeated to be told by the coach “You know, at the end of each practice, when everyone else has gone off the field, Hawking stays out there and practises just that.”

It struck me that there is a lesson here for us. Just the day before I had a conversation with Professor Mike Kirst at Stanford about the evaluation and assessment of career path activity and he outlined the problems that they were facing in assessing and evaluating the soft skills, the employability skills etc, in career path programmes.

The issue is that these skills are not really learned but rather are internalized over time just like the instinctive skills that led to Hawking’s touchdown. Moments of brilliance do not simply happen once, they come from practice that make the skills part of our being. Top sports coaches understand this.

Do institutions that are focused on career path activity actually practice the very skills that employers are asking for? Employers are clear in stating what they want. How might providers respond?

Employers say:                  “I want them to turn up every day!”

What attention do providers pay to attendance? What records are kept and how is such important behaviour reported? What happens when lectures and tutorials are skipped? Tolerance is not serving students well who expect to be employed in settings that have zero tolerance.

Employers say:                  “I want them to be on time!

What attention is paid to punctuality? To starting on time? Working until the end of the session? We need to show that time is a resource which needs to be used fully and well.

Employers say:                  “They have to complete tasks and in a timely way?”

Do we insist on this? Do we emphasise the importance of deadlines? Do we reward the behaviours that we want?

Employers say:                  “They have to have the technical skills to do the job.”

This is an easy one for providers because if the courses are current and are regularly refreshed, taught in industry standard facilities with the rigour of the work place, then having the credential should attest to this. This is the bread and butter work of the institution.

Employers say:                  “They have to be free of drugs and alcohol issues.”

Again, this is an easy one for providers since most institutions insist on just that. But do we make it clear just why we have a zero tolerance for it. Do we have a zero tolerance in our institutions.

Employers say:                  “They have to be appropriately presented, dressed appropriately, no garish disfiguring tattoos and piercings.”

Well, would it be a step too far to suggest that business students should dress appropriately for the business world while they are students? Students who study auto engineering, those in food and beverage, those who chef and many others do.  But do we have established standards for those who work in “ordinary” clothes?

And honesty, reliability, working in teams, resilience and a whole lot more.

You see, if training institutions practised these soft skills so that they became instinctive, a guarantee could be given to employers that graduates had these attributes. Over time it would be known that graduates from such an institution were worth taking on because they had a set of learned behaviours expected of professionals in the field and which will be seen by the employer as the mark of a new employee who is likely to be worth investing in..

And this would solve the issue of testing and assessing and evaluating the soft skills.

One final suggestion. If it is important that many occupations require those entering to have a driver’s licence why are institutions largely silent on the matter and why cannot a very early indication be made to students that over the one, two, or three years of the course they would do well to get one.

For that matter, are the requisite soft skills packaged and explained as something that employers are looking for?