The robots are coming for our jobs. Or rather, they are changing the future of work, along with AI and other technology changes.
New Zealanders need to be at the forefront of this change and our education system needs a strong focus on technology and related areas to turn this threat into a massive opportunity.
That's why the tech industry has worked so closely with the Ministry of Education around digital tech education in schools over the last few years – a strong and genuine partnership that has helped ensure the next generation is ready.
But elsewhere in the education system, many in our industry have – very regrettably and with heavy hearts – concluded this week that New Zealand is going to be less prepared for the future of work than ever, thanks to the approach taken by our Government and the Tertiary Education Commission around tertiary education reform.
Some quick background: The tech industry, alongside others such as engineering, the creative sector and others, have been working really hard to try to get a good outcome in the industry-aligned part of the Review of Vocational Education (RoVE) which is happening currently.
This is a massive review – basically changing the shape of the vocational education sector for a generation. This has a significant impact on our industry, but also greatly impacts New Zealand as a whole. And how it's structured is absolutely crucial.
We've been working on the Workforce Development Councils (WDCs) primarily – the six new quasi-Governmental bureaucracies being established to work with industry on future skill needs, then shape the education system to meet those needs via skills and qualifications.
The process of figuring out the coverage and makeup of these WDCs started well, with promises of the process being industry-led and responsive to industry needs. And tech and other industries were completely united with input and feedback; all significant tech and engineering bodies co-signed proposals and were on the same page on this.
But then things started to head south.
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Our industries came together because there was so much at stake. It's not just that the makeup of these WDCs has such an impact on our industry – it does. But just as importantly, they would significantly impact New Zealand's preparedness for the changing nature of work across the board, often driven by technology change.
And so many in our sectors invested significant time and energy in figuring out what would work for our industries and New Zealand to best capture the opportunities the changing face of work created. And these were people who knew their stuff.
First, the idea of a "Core WDC" was put to TEC. This would be a WDC focusing on core skills that sit across all disciplines, especially in the context of the Future of Work. Skills like IT, foundational engineering, business and entrepreneurialism and more. The WDC would focus on the underlying industries, but have a big focus on helping every other WDC come to terms with the technology impact in their industries and the other core areas.
This was turned down, because the makeup of these skills councils could apparently only be based on TEC's definition of "industries", and some of these areas were across more than one of them. Which is the point, of course.
It didn't matter that in a lot of areas like tech and business, people practise in the context of all industries. In short, TEC were trying to use "ANZSIC" industry classification codes to define things and even though these codes are outdated and very blunt, anything that didn't fit neatly into their model couldn't be considered, regardless of what happened in the real world.
So in one decision by Wellington bureaucrats, New Zealand lost the opportunity for a clear, coherent joined-up approach to the impact of technology on the future of work across our entire vocational education system, during the largest educational shakeup of our time.
Just stop for a second and read that again. Let that sink in.
But wait, wasn't this intended to be an industry-led process? The fact this approach was fairly widely supported by industry didn't matter either, apparently.
Next came two alternative proposals – a tech-focused WDC, or a wider WDC focused on STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Again, the rationale was simple: this is an area with a massive impact on the future of vocational employment across many industries. So let's set up a future-focused WDC to ensure New Zealand's vocational education system was ready for it.
But no, this couldn't be supported either. Tech was too small, and we couldn't have a broader focus alongside engineering without including a random bunch of other "industries". It didn't matter that these industries didn't have the same future focus, impact on NZ as a whole, learning complexity or structure or anything else that provided commonality – all "industries" had been neatly chopped up between six WDCs and that's all there was to it.
The Wellington bureaucrats had spoken again.
In many respects, Tech was somewhat fortunate – at least we were part of these earlier conversations. As frustrating as the inadequate consultation process was, and as much as the officials haven't listened to industry, others such as the Creative industries that bring us movies such as Avatar and LOTR, games, design and so much more, weren't even included in the conversation.
Next, our industries put yet another proposal up to TEC to create a good future-focused WDC that fitted more with their model, focused on the future of work still, based around business, IT and creative. We were clear on what would work – bring these together because they have a similar structure and future focus and let them get on with it.
But no. The decision was to keep business out (even though the heads of the country's polytechnic business schools and IT schools unanimously supported business and IT being aligned), and include hairdressing, beauty, sports and recreation in this grouping.
Now, these are mighty fine industries. But they have their own challenges and have a completely different focus and structure than tech, business and the creative industries. Their challenges are as unlikely to be met by bundling us all together as ours.
So again, because of decisions that were made throughout, seemingly ignoring industry's clearly stated needs, we've ended up with a mish-mash of "industries" shoved together with very little commonality of purpose, direction, structure or focus.
And again, no WDC with a strong and unwavering focus on the future of work and the impact that technology revolution has on it.
The bureacrats will say that all of the different areas have a focus on this, but no. Setting up six mini-bureaucracies without a joined-up focus, and bundling industries like tech and hairdressing together will not achieve a good outcome for anyone.
Make no mistake, the future of work is changing. The robots are coming. Technology education is crucial to these changes, as are business and entrepreneurial skills, creative thinking and more. And our education system needs to adapt to make sure NZ is ready.
That's half the reason these reforms are happening in the first place.
But the reality is, the needs of the industries that these reforms were meant to support have been ignored in favour of models and classification codes, the big picture has been lost in the weeds, a focal point for the future of work has been scrapped, and New Zealand will be worse off because of it.
• Paul Matthews is chief executive of IT Professionals New Zealand, the professional body for those working in tech.