Can we get it right? The risks of vocational education reform
MBIE forecasts show sustained construction sector growth for the next six years with between $35-$40 billion dollars of construction per annum. The residential sector will underpin this growth, with over 40,000 dwelling consents per annum by 2020. On one hand, these forecasts provide me with a sense of optimism that our industry will have a degree of certainty for the coming years. On the other hand, it does raise alarms for me about how to ensure we build quality homes at the scale our communities and cities need.
Underpinning our ability to build is, of course, having enough highly skilled and qualified workers. Forecasting shows New Zealand’s building workforce needs to grow by more than 17,000 workers by 2020. This means continued and additional pressure on capacity and the supply of skilled workers in the industry. The ability of the construction industry to attract apprentices is vital, and with New Zealand’s unemployment rate expected to remain around 4%, there will be plenty of competition for workers. Rising labour costs also mean that businesses will want to get the best out of their staff.
Without being overly dramatic, the Government’s Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) run the risk of affecting the health and wellbeing of our industry at a time when we need certainty. There’s no doubt that the polytechnic sector has been in decline for some time. Ministry of Education’s own data shows combined roll numbers across the 16 polytechnics have dropped by 40,000 or 37% since 2008. This coupled by a competitive funding model, where polytechnics compete for Government funding, means their approach is “bums on seats.” This approach is often at the detriment of course and educator quality, which unfairly affects apprentices, learners, and employers.
Yet, polytechnics aren’t the only ones who have been struggling. Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) have not been consistent in providing information about industry skill demand, defining national skill standards and qualifications required by industry or brokering training to meet the needs of employees. We are fortunate that the BCITO has been leading from the front, however others need to lift their game.
So, looking at RoVE holistically, there needs to be some level of reform. We cannot keep spending a billion dollars a year in vocational education with stagnant or declining education outcomes. Yet, I have concerns about what the reforms mean for our sector, who currently have BCITO giving strong leadership, support and training for apprentices and employers.
Our members have told us loud and clear, the voice of the employer is missing from RoVE. This lack of acknowledgement and understanding of the role the employer plays in training apprentices has created uncertainty. Members have shared their uncertainty about the length of courses and who will be administering the training. These members also tell me this uncertainty means they may reconsider continuing to have apprentices or having them in the future.
Offsite learning to understand “why something is done a certain way” is just as important to learn as the “what to do” and “how to do it.” However, offsite learning needs to be flexible and work for both the employer and apprentice. This means any increase in the number of block courses, which take apprentices off the job for extended periods, at a time when capacity is an issue, won’t work. Members prefer shorter courses on focussed educational outcomes i.e. learning a specific carpentry skill, and online learning and assessment are preferred methods of training. Short courses can reduce the time and financial costs of apprenticeships for our members, who are largely small-medium business owners.
The quality of a course is only as good as the quality of the educator. We need to ensure educators keep up-to-date with the constant changes in skills, technology and training occurring in the sector. On-the-job training ensures apprentices understand current systems and trends, in a real-world situation.
We need to get this right. The long-term health and sustainability of the sector depends on it. A decline in employer confidence to take on apprentices will undermine the capability, capacity, and effectiveness of the sector. That’s why we are working with BCITO, Master Plumbers and Master Electricians to ensure we have a collective voice on your behalf. We’ve met with Minister Hipkins and reiterated what parts of RoVE we support and what parts we have concerns about. We also outlined our suggested changes to ensure any reforms that do go ahead benefit the wider vocational education training sector as well as minimalising any disruptions to our sector. The Minister certainly appreciated the vital role that employers play, and we will ensure that we stay closely involved with any proposed changes.