It took four years of searching and two courses for Dylan Matoofa to find a job. Luckily, the second course was successful.
Mr Matoofa, 20, of Glendene in West Auckland, left school when he was 15 in 2007. He signed up to a warehousing course at Skills Update a year later, but didn't finish it.
"They tried to find work but it didn't work out," he says.
In October last year, Work and Income finally referred him to a course for Pacific youth run by the Solomon Group, a Manurewa-based training provider founded by former Rotorua Lakes High principal Frank Solomon and his wife Judy, also a teacher.
The group's West Auckland "employment navigators", Linda Kennett and Tracy Arnold, spent two weeks helping him update his CV and prepare for interviews, then helped him look for work. Two months later they referred him to The Pallet Company, a growing local business that has taken on about 15 workers from the Solomon Group in the past 18 months.
"I was on a three-month contract, then they gave me a fulltime job," Mr Matoofa says. "It keeps you on your feet. I want to stay for as long as I can."
Mike Alesana, 19, of Mt Roskill, also came via Solomon Group and is glad to have his first real job. The only previous work he could get was on call at The Warehouse.
"I worked there twice, then they didn't call me from then on," he says.
Mr Matoofa and Mr Alesana are two out of 2500 young Pacific people each year (37 per cent of Pacific school-leavers) who leave school without NCEA level 2. About 1500 of those, including Mr Matoofa, do not even have level 1.
The numbers leaving school with at least level 2 have risen spectacularly since the multiple-credit NCEA system replaced the simple pass/fail duality of School Certificate. Pacific school-leavers with level 2 have jumped from 36 per cent in 2003 to 63 per cent, Maori from 24 per cent to 51 per cent, and Europeans from 53 per cent to 77 per cent. But across New Zealand, 18,000 still left school without it last year, including those 2500 Pacific youngsters, 6500 Maori and 9000 Pakeha.
A generation ago, their parents could walk straight into unskilled jobs without qualifications. Today most of those jobs have gone, and many of those still being failed by the school system need a second chance at learning if they are to get the skills they need to find work.
Second-chance learning is the most unstable part of our training system. It expanded explosively in the first few years of this century as polytechnics and Te Wananga o Aotearoa took full advantage of a liberal funding regime, only to crash when the rules were tightened.
Student numbers in levels 1 to 3 tertiary courses, broadly equivalent to the last three years of high school, have plunged from a peak of almost 208,000 in 2005 to just 119,000 last year.
Students on these courses are the inverse of those passing NCEA, disproportionately Maori and Pacific. They are also much older than most students: 67 per cent aged at least 25, 38 per cent over 40. Even after an early cull of the most questionable courses, such as one that famously taught "twilight golf", an official review this year found that the system was still plagued by low success rates.
Only 39 per cent of people who started a level 1-3 course in 2006 had completed a qualification by the start of last year. Only 35 per cent had gone on to enrol for a higher-level qualification.
A review of the Training Opportunities Programmes (TOPs) for the unemployed found that 40 per cent of those with "positive" outcomes (work or further training) actually went on to another TOPs course, creating a "churn" of people moving into and out of apparently dead-end courses.
Unitec head Dr Rick Ede, who leads a group of urban polytechnics, comments: "There was some level 1 and 2 provision in the [polytechnic] sector that was not hugely value-adding. That has been pared back. That is quite appropriate."
In 2008 both main political parties responded by looking for ways to keep all young people in some kind of education or training at least until they turn 18, rather than allowing them to drop out and need a "second chance".
Labour's "Schools Plus" scheme proposed making all young people stay in education or training to 18, but allowing them to take up apprenticeships and other kinds of work-based training while staying formally on school rolls.
National proposed "trades academies" in schools and a "youth guarantee" scheme - "a universal education entitlement for all 16- and 17-year-olds [that] will allow them to access, free of charge, a programme of educational study towards school-level qualifications".
Youth guarantee has grown slowly to 7345 free places in levels 1-3 courses at almost 150 polytechnics, wananga and private training providers today. It was narrowed last year to focus on bringing students up to the equivalent of NCEA level 2, so free places at level 3 were capped at 1500, rising to 2000 next year.
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce says: "We have committed to providing fees-free level 1 and 2 places in tertiary for all 16- and 17-year-olds by 2017.
"We will have 10,500 by 2015, plus 4980 places at trades academies and service academies, also by 2015. That is likely to meet the demand, but we will review again closer to the time."
On average over the year to September, Statistics NZ says 8950 young people aged 16 and 17 were not in employment, education, training or caregiving (NEET). That's a NEET rate of 7 per cent, less than for slightly older youth because at 16 and 17 most are still in school.
Under the Government's welfare reform programme, agencies such as the Solomon Group have been contracted since August to help all NEET 16- and 17-year-olds into work or training.
If all 8950 of them tried to get youth guarantee places, on top of the 7345 already in the scheme, then the planned 10,500 places would be about 5800 short. But Mr Joyce can reasonably bet on many of them finding jobs instead when the economy eventually picks up.
All tertiary institutions and private training establishments (PTEs) are now being audited to make sure students actually complete their courses and progress to either higher courses or jobs. Those with low success rates lose 5 per cent of their funding.
The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) has also begun tendering out the funding for levels 1 and 2 courses. A third of the $115 million earmarked for levels 1 and 2 next year has just been tendered out to 17 private providers, six polytechnics and Te Wananga o Aotearoa, based on their success rates to date.
Two-thirds of polytechnics, including Unitec and Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland and Waiariki in Rotorua, missed out. Several are laying off staff as a result. But Christine Clark, whose privately-owned Corporate Academy Group won funding in Auckland, says students will benefit.
"A lot of the lower-level learners get lost in a polytechnic," she says. "You go to a PTE with 14 or 15 students and it's more of a family environment."
What about the adults?
These policy changes have focused, understandably, on picking up young people as soon as they leave school at 16 or 17. Last year 84 per cent of youth guarantee students came straight from high school; only 9 per cent had been unemployed.
As consultant Dr Sue Walbran noted before the latest changes last year: "These changes will see a shift in the focus of youth training from a 'second-chance' programme to one where schools can transition learners directly into further training."
But there is still a huge need among those 18 and over. The highest NEET rate, 11.4 per cent excluding caregivers, is actually in the 20-24 age group. As noted already in this series, 14 per cent of all adults can't read a simple document such as a map or a timetable and 20 per cent can't carry out a one-step calculation.
Yet not only have levels 1-3 students dwindled, but adult and community education was halved and $94 million over four years was cut from literacy and numeracy education in the recession Budget of 2009. Specific funding to train tutors in how to teach literacy ended.
Instead, literacy and numeracy requirements have been "embedded" in all levels 1-3 courses. But Katherine Percy of Workbase, which provides workplace literacy and numeracy training, says many tutors in levels 1-3 courses come from industry and are not trained to teach literacy.
"Primary school teachers who teach literacy are trained to teach it. Teachers in tertiary do not know how you teach an adult literacy or numeracy, and it's the same with supervisors in the workplace," she says. "The embedded strategy's effectiveness is far from established. You don't get embedded literacy by telling them they have to do it when there is no money to train them on how to do it."
Monday: Our mismatched skills
Yesterday: Vocational pathways
Today: Industry training
Tomorrow: Second-chance education
Friday: Tertiary education.