When Otahuhu College work placement co-ordinator Jacquie Brayshaw took four students to look at job opportunities at the Auckland port, the man at the security gate shouted: "Lock it all up! The school from the south is here!"
Brayshaw, who lives in Henderson, was shocked. But her students said, "We get it all the time, Miss."
When she took another group to the ANZ Bank in central Auckland, one student told her: "Miss, I can't go in there, I'm the only brown face."
"Yes you can!" she'd said. But her story shows how attitudes need to change on both sides if young Pacific people are to break through into the secure careers that modern apprenticeships can lead to.
It's a struggle. Brayshaw's counterpart at Mangere College, Debra Pene, says she has never had a call from a modern apprenticeship co-ordinator, although she did place one student in an apprenticeship last year thanks to an email Brayshaw passed on from Kiwi Rail.
Lester Elliott, who runs a pre-apprenticeship construction course at Otara's Tangaroa College, gets students work experience with Hawkins and other building firms, and had an arrangement to place students for casual work through Allied Workforce's training centre in Mangere.
But Allied had to pull out late last year, and other apprenticeship opportunities have dried up in the recession. "I have a huge problem getting them to take on an apprentice," Elliott says.
At Otahuhu, Brayshaw visits the families of all her training students to make sure their children get to work placements. She personally drives from Henderson to take one youth to work experience in East Tamaki before she gets to school in the mornings.
At the end of the year she invites all 65 Gateway - the placement scheme - students, their families and the employers who gave them work experience to a presentation evening which one participant called "an evangelical experience".
Last year she held a night for Pacific families, with speakers such as Auckland City Council street environment manager Tony Jonas, who designed golf courses in Dubai - "my sort of heroes". This year's Pacific night is coming up soon.
Others are trying a variety of initiatives. Former apprenticeship co-ordinator John Kotoisuva is mentoring 18 students from eight low-decile schools who spend one day a week learning steel construction at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and work in the steel industry in their school holidays for two years.
"These companies have been going to China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines to import skilled and semi-skilled workers," Kotoisuva says.
"So I proposed this idea - instead of going overseas, let's work together to raise our own to reach the level that they need."
The pilot is funded by the ASB Community Trust, but Kotoisuva hopes it will be adopted by the Education Ministry and the Tertiary Education Commission. He's already looking at extending it to 15 more schools by mid-year.
MIT also opened its own "tertiary high school" for 50 students this month, combining the last three years of high school with the first year of tertiary education to ease the transition into the trades.