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Category: Employers

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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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?



Getting education and training to work

San Francisco

Just returned to San Francisco from the ACTE Conference in Nashville. I will come clean and admit that I found time to catch up with country music and, believe me, it is wall-to-wall. I am still humming “Kiss an angel good morning!”  after having heard Charley Pride at the Grand ‘Ole Opry last night.

But what are the key messages I take from the very professional conference attended by 3,000 career and technical education teachers from both secondary and postsecondary providers? Well, it is one overwhelmingly clear message. We are talking in New Zealand a lot about progression to employment but are spending a much less focused energy on making it happen when compared to the US or perhaps I should say, best practice in the US – it is a huge country and the best is as good as it gets and the worst doesn’t bear thinking about.

I was astonished by the extent to which the high schools of the USA are developing relationships with employers and the quality of the articulation of this to the actual progression to employment at the point of qualification completion and employment entry from postsecondary programmes at community colleges and colleges (i.e. ITPs and other tertiary providers in NZ terms).

Simply knowing employers, being able to call on their support and regarding them as a friends of the institution just doesn’t cut it! What is called for is a deep and enduring relationship that requires both an effort at development, a bigger effort in maintaining, and a genuine partnership in the contributions of both the provider and the employer in the successful induction of the novice into the career.

This requires a number of features that characterise successful relationships between providers and employers: 

  •          serious engagement of the employers in course development and implementation; 
  •          involvement of employers and their enterprises in the delivery of the programme in a manner that enhances the relationship and simply doesn’t place pressure on the employer from a resource point of view (people, equipment and time); 
  •          a willingness of employers to engage in internships / work experiences of different  kinds and capstone projects because it is good for them rather than it being only good for the provider – in other words it is a relationship that adds value to the activity of both partners; 
  •          a privileged  position that sees the partner-employers having first cut at getting the best graduates; 
  •          a shared commitment to developing in Career and Technical Education (when are we going to grow up and use this international description in NZ?) a clear pathway from training to employment, from learning to jobs and between those who prepare workers and those who employ them.

All of this requires a different way of working. It will require providers to become smart and nimble, to be professional and current in the provision not just in terms of the educational institution but in terms of the industry itself. Above all it calls for real partnership between the trainers and the employers.

Sometime I get the impression that in tertiary education we think it is about us. Bugtit never is. It is about the students, their families, the employers, their shareholders and employees. The providers simply engage the parties in assisting a student along the pathways from the point where they have reached prior to enrolment to the final and fulfilling position of being employed in a great job, a job they want to do alongside people who respect them and value their contribution.

It is a special responsibility that educators have. Are we up to it because we have the policy settings in New Zealand but the US is stealing a march on us in their work with employers and in a much harsher environment.


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