A few weeks ago more than 100 companies, led by the ASB Bank, issued an open letter declaring tertiary qualifications are not required for a range of roles within their workplaces. Their stated aim was nothing less than to "change the conversation around education in New Zealand".
They want schools, teachers, parents and, most importantly, students to know employers are not necessarily looking for recruits with academic or technical qualifications for skilled roles in their companies. Instead, they are looking for evidence of the attitudes, motivation and adaptability required.
In a sense this is not new, employers have long been heard to say that technical skills can be learned on the job, and that they are more interested in applicants' attitude, willingness and ability to learn. A tertiary degree is often valued as evidence of application and motivation rather than for the acquisition of useful knowledge. Too often firms in field such as engineering are heard to complain that graduate recruits know next to nothing useful and have to be taught what to do.
But the companies that have now questioned the value of tertiary qualifications in many cases are responding to a shortage of skills in some sectors. They clearly believe the pool of able recruits can be enlarged if fewer school leavers were channelled into tertiary institutions. They do not say, though it can be inferred, they think many young people are put off by a three- or four-year course of further study before they can start earning some money.
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Job search websites already find interest from both employers and job seekers in a "no qualifications" search filter.
There are said to be as many as 90,000 young New Zealanders who are not in employment education or training, which is remarkable considering the number of providers of tertiary education in towns and cities throughout the country. Polytechnics and private training enterprises have proliferated since the late 1980s with the provision of public and private funding through student loans and the formation of industry training organisations in place of apprenticeships.
But more recently there has been a return to the idea that apprenticeships were not so bad. Trainees were able to earn some income as they learned on the job. Modern apprenticeships are spent partly in institutions for the theoretical side of their work, and partly on the job. There is not much doubt which part most of them find more useful.
The move to bypass tertiary qualifications altogether is being led by a group of 30 business executives organised by the ASB and KPMG as a "strategic insights panel" which aims to help double New Zealand's per capita growth from 1.5 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent by 2021. They believe it possible if industries were not struggling to find workers with "enthusiasm, natural talent, passion and potential".
Qualifications, they say, "do not always reflect the true capability of applicants". If young people hear this message, more of them may find a job.