We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: How can we get more young people into jobs?
Most people understand we're emerging from the deepest recession in a generation.
One group of New Zealanders who have been particularly hit hard by the economic environment are our young people and I've found it heartbreaking at times to meet people who have really struggled to find work.
They have told me how it seems unfair at times because they feel like they have done everything right in terms of studying hard and gaining qualifications but that hasn't been enough.
It's even tougher though for people without qualifications. That's why I think it's so important young people go as far in education as they can.
Currently, there around 17,000 people aged 18 to 24 receiving an unemployment related benefit.
But the latest figures are starting to show some improvement.
Our approach to youth unemployment has been to do three things, fix the long-term economic issues so that businesses can create more jobs, create government schemes that help subsidise employers to get young people into jobs or training through the recession, and create more places in tertiary education for those people to further their education.
The positive news is that the budget forecast shows us averaging about 3% growth over the next four years which is expected to deliver up to 170,000 new jobs, alongside the wage increases that we all want to see.
In terms of government schemes, we recently announced a $55 million Youth Employment Package which is focused on getting unemployed young people into jobs and training. The package includes new Skills for Growth programmes which will provide $5000 for businesses in high-demand industries to employ and train a person. This will help set up 1,000 young people with a good job and new qualifications. All people aged 16 to 24 who have been on a benefit for more than three months will be eligible, with a focus on those young people at high risk of long-term benefit dependency being eligible earlier.
The Job Ops programme which gives a $5000 subsidy to businesses that employ low-skilled young people has already given employment opportunities to over 10,000 young Kiwis. Of those completing the programme, over 90 per cent have not gone back on a benefit.
The subsidy can be used for both wages and training.
We are also expanding the Limited Service Volunteers programme. This is a six-week residential programme, which focuses on building young people's confidence. Some young people and their families have told me this programme has been a pretty life-changing experience.
In the last couple of years we've also created a record number of tertiary places to help those young people who can't find work to further their education. In 2011 there will be 119,000 funded full-time places at universities, 8,000 more than in 2008. Across the core tertiary sector there will be about 13,000 more full-time equivalent places than in 2008.
I remain concerned about the impact on young people from Labour's policy of unaffordable and immediate increases to the minimum wage. The goal is admirable. We all want all New Zealanders to have higher wages - but arbitrarily raising the minimum wage at a time when many businesses are struggling runs the risk of pricing young Kiwis out of the market, or worse, job losses.
Research done by the Department of Labour suggests that raising the minimum wage at this time could result in up to 6,000 job losses. In the past couple of years the Government has raised the minimum wage by about $1 an hour - or around $40 a week. It has been a balanced approach that weighs up the impact on employment - with our desire to see low paid Kiwis get a fair wage.
Most of us have been in a period where we have been looking for jobs or have had family and friends in that situation. Things are improving but it is really important that both employers and Government continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to help young people into work.
You come across a lot of numbers in politics. In fact, if we wanted to, we could probably speak entirely in statistics (and unfortunately sometimes we do.) But there is one number that has worried me just that little bit more than most: 77,000.
That's the number of young people currently not in school, work, training or education. It represents a huge amount of lost potential.
This isn't a new problem. The 1990s were the last time youth unemployment was as high as it is now. That was also the period when we paid young people less than everyone else; a point worth making given some people have started promoting the idea of bringing back the youth minimum wage as the 'youth unemployment silver bullet.'
The reality is that youth unemployment is low when there are jobs. And right now, there just aren't enough - and the ones that do exist, not enough young people are being trained for. We need a plan, and fast.
The Government's attempts to tackle youth unemployment have taken the form of a few short, sharp (sometimes headline grabbing) packages. The job summit and the cycleway were the first but they delivered only 5% of the jobs the government predicted. Their second attempt to fix the problem was the job ops package and community max, which helped a few thousand young people into 6 months of subsidised work.
Now the government is promoting welfare reform as the answer. But when over 1,000 people queued for 140 jobs at a new Countdown supermarket in Hamilton, and the last decade's numbers show that benefit numbers were at the lowest point when unemployment was too, the message is clear - the vast majority of Kiwis want to work. They don't need their benefit changed to tell them that, they need jobs.
I think the Government has overstated how much they are doing in this area. John Key claimed the recent Budget would create 170,000 jobs over the next 4 years. When I asked him in the House what initiatives in the budget would create said jobs, the Prime Minister responded with three things; interest rates; national standards in primary schools; and early childhood education. He went on to state clearly that job creation is not for government; it's for business.
There is no denying that the private sector are the ones creating the majority of the jobs - and that's exactly why the Government should be working alongside them and making sure that we're doing all we can to create the conditions they need to grow. We should be much more proactive on that front than the Government is.
Our dollar is the fourth most traded in the world, and it's killing our exporters. It's time to give them the certainty they need by reviewing our monetary policy, so they can grow and create the jobs we need. And that's not the only lever we have.
A report from PWC told us what we already know; that greater investment in Research and Development (through policies like the tax credit we plan to bring back) will give our economy, and jobs, another boost.
But this isn't just about creating jobs. It's about making sure our young people have the skills for them. We're failing badly on that front.
The construction industry is the perfect example: we need roughly 12,500 tradespeople for Christchurch's residential rebuild alone but, in the past two years, there's been a 34% drop in the number of young people in apprenticeships in Canterbury. Couple that with the fact that there are 25,000 fewer people in industry training in just two years, and the result is a government that has admitted it's likely to look to migrant labour to fill the gaps. With more than 25% of our 15-19 year-olds looking for work, that's crazy.
Instead of playing around with welfare reform and bringing back youth rates, it's time the Government looked at the bigger picture: our young people need jobs and skills.
And until they do that, I am not going to stop talking about that number: 77,000.
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