In small towns, mayors are as well placed as anyone to tackle unemployment. They talk regularly to local businesses, hearing their complaints about any number of issues, not least where they are struggling to fill holes in their workforce. In the case of Otorohanga, this laid the foundation for a very successful partnership with local industry, which designed and supported courses to provide the jobs that it required. The upshot of the apprentice support system and other youth initiatives was zero youth unemployment in the King Country town throughout most of the recession.
But despite that success, and other promising initiatives such as Auckland's recently established Youth Connections scheme, attempts to help young people into work have remained disjointed and have failed to attain a high profile. This has hindered the making of inroads into the problem, and 74,800 people aged 15 to 24 are not in employment, education or training.
That statistic has now prompted an ambitious initiative, orchestrated by Dale Williams, the former mayor of Otorohanga and the outgoing head of the national Mayors Taskforce for Jobs. His proposal, inspired by a scheme set up to benefit Aboriginal Australians, envisages collecting at least 20,000 promises of jobs for unemployed young people. Ten thousand of these new jobs would be for unemployed young Maori, and the balance for all other ethnicities combined. This breakdown is understandable given that more than one in every five (22 per cent) of all Maori aged 15 to 24 is not in employment, education or training, almost double the national average.
The Australian Employment Covenant Scheme, the brainchild of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, has been a great success. Job expectations have been surpassed. In this country, Mr Williams proposes promises called Job Opportunity Bonds. Employers would say when a job would become available, specify the required criteria, and promise to hold the job for someone referred by the local community with the necessary qualifications.
Success would depend very much on mayors ready, willing and able to play a leadership role in ensuring that training providers prepare young people to the standards employers require. This appears likely to be accomplished most easily in small towns, where the focus of local steering groups would be fairly narrow and such requirements could be identified and addressed relatively simply.
The target of 20,000 nationwide is, of course, bold. Understandably, some mayors are reluctant to commit to a numerical target, let alone one so ambitious. But it is telling that the Employers and Manufacturers Association believes it is achievable.
The initiative also has the backing of the Motor Trade Association, which notes that car dealers and repair shops face "a greater demand for better people than an ability to supply".
The Employment Minister, Steven Joyce, says his officials are still working out what 20,000 jobs would mean at a local level to prepare a revised memorandum of understanding with the mayors taskforce. This, however, is something that the Government should get behind. It can point out that this country's unemployment figures compare well with the likes of Australia. Nonetheless, the number of young people without a job remains a blemish.
Mr Williams' experience and record of success in his nine years as Otorohanga mayor are one reason that makes this an initiative worthy of support. So does the outstanding record of the Employment Covenant Scheme across the Tasman. So, too, does the readiness of employers and manufacturers to participate. Mr Williams says it will require "a leap of faith".
In the interests of this country's young people, that is one which should be taken.