When Prime Minister John Key announced his new Cabinet line-up late last year, one of the most significant changes went largely unnoticed in the public arena.
Much was made of Steven Joyce's rise in the rankings, but there was less commentary in the significant change in his portfolio allocation. Not only does the fourth-ranked Minister now have responsibility for employment as well as tertiary education, but for the first time, those portfolios are seen as so intrinsically related that they have been merged into one. Furthermore the crucial role of "skills" was also recognised.
A week later, Labour's new leader David Shearer followed suite - allocating the tertiary education portfolio to his high-flying deputy Grant Robertson and adding skills and training to his job description (although employment is still held independently in Labour's line-up).
In industry training circles, it added to the Christmas cheer. Our sector has always been a conduit between education and employment. We have focused on the kind of training that workers need to not only do their jobs better and contribute to their career development but provide them with skills that are transferable across industry.
Not only do the 34 Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) arrange the training for apprentices and other workers, but they have a responsibility to work with their industries to determine future need: What will workplaces of the future look like? What are the kinds of skills that their jobs will require? Do we have enough people coming into the industry with the right skills and training? What needs to happen in schools and polytechnics to ensure workers of the future can contribute to economic growth?
As a nation, we have developed an almost childlike assumption that what we learn at school and in tertiary education is linked to the workforce -- that our education sector prepares people for jobs.
While that might be the ideal, the reality has been a mixed bag of over-supply and under-supply of the kind of skills we need - a fundamental lack of cohesion between the needs of industry and what the education sector is willing or able to provide. There's been little effort made on the part of successive governments to proactively engage the education sector around discussions of growth and economic development.
As a result, too much of what is available in education has grown around the personal desires of the individual students (i.e. I dream of being an acrobat and therefore that is what I will study) and the sometimes meaningless practicalities of education providers (i.e. it is cheap to train acrobats and we will get lots of enrolments, therefore we will specialise in acrobatic training).
Yet hypothetically speaking, if there are jobs available for two acrobats in the circus, what is the point in government subsidising the education and training of 100 acrobats? Do we actually need any acrobats at all to fulfil our country's ambitions? And if we do, how can the circus ensure that the acrobats are being trained correctly, with the latest techniques?
The changes around political leadership in this space, signals that policies around education, skills, and employment will no longer be treated like distant cousins.
Those of us working in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system (that which is provided with the primary purpose of leading to a particular job or jobs) will need to respond with a greater focus on working in partnership. That includes Government, industry, schools, and the tertiary education providers like wananga and polytechnics.
We need to communicate more succinctly our needs and constraints. We need to listen and learn from each other. We need to do our bit to support the government's economic policies and help ensure that every taxpayer dollar spent on education is spent wisely and with wider economic goals in mind.
John Key has listed "building a more competitive and productive economy" as one of his Government four key priorities this term. The industry training sector is putting our hands up to help achieve that goal.
An export focused economy, selling more of what the world wants at a competitive price, and built on a solid base of innovation will require people with good skills.
A report conducted by economic research agency BERL last year calculated that industry training contributes more than $7 billion a year to the country's GDP and is particularly important to the success of our export industries. Furthermore, the report shows productivity in export industries is significantly boosted by investing in training for elementary skilled workers (those who in the past, may have been termed 'unskilled labour' but who modern practices and technology are demanding much more from).
The Government is currently reviewing industry training. Through that review the Industry Training Federation is seeking a commitment that industries' needs will be at the heart of any changes. This will include ways of supporting better strategic relationships between industry and ITOs and other partners in the VET sector Including schools and universities)
We are asking the Government to support and strengthen the role that ITOs have in skills leadership - helping industries determine skills and training needs to support workforce development. It is a role that is currently mandated in legislation but receives miniscule government support. We argue that in order for Government to meet its priority for a more competitive and productive economy it must support this kind of strategic planning and not leave it solely up to industry.
As Parliament returns for the sitting year, we welcome the indication that there will be a focus on tertiary education, our skill levels, our employment opportunities, and ultimately the productivity and prosperity of the country.
* Mark Oldershaw is CEO of the Industry Training Federation