On April 1 2020, UCOL along with all other institutes of technology and polytechnics across New Zealand will become part of the New Zealand Institute for Skills and Technology (NZIST) following the recent Review of Vocational Education conducted by the Ministry for Education.
I'm optimistic about the potential of the reform, as vocational education in New Zealand has not yet adapted to dramatically changing workplace needs and skills gaps. A recent report commissioned by Economic Development New Zealand found that infrastructure and skills were the two most important enablers of regional economic activity, and it's not hard to see why.
I know from conversations with Whanganui employers that skills gaps, especially for highly skilled roles, are a major issue keeping many of our businesses from expanding to their full potential. This means our residents are also kept from reaching their full potential. I'm sure that many of our people would love to fill these open positions, but can't access the right training opportunities.
In recent years, the number of 18-24 year olds not in employment, education or training (NEETs) has been dropping considerably thanks to initiatives like 100% SWEET. The unemployment rate has also been coming down, but there's still considerable work to do before our rates are below the national average.
Our growing population means we have a pressing need for more training opportunities, especially in areas that speak to the strengths of our economy. It is important that our businesses and industries work alongside education providers to ensure the programmes are relevant.
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Our education providers are already contributing to the city and wider community in this regard. Private tertiary operators support specialised career pathways, while the Whanganui UCOL campus has a training legacy in the creative, healthcare and food spaces. The work and knowledge of Whanganui's high quality lecture staff has built successful programmes across a range of in-demand disciplines.
I understand that the current funding model and structure has been holding back further expansion of programmes in Whanganui, which is another reason I look forward to the reform. When you factor demand into the strength in teaching we have here and the quality of our secondary education, we're ready for the step change in tertiary education provision that the Government desires.
I see a great opportunity for Whanganui's UCOL campus, as part of the NZIST, to play an innovative role in creating bite-sized chunks of education and training to help raise the skill level of the existing workforce. I have recently met with the chief of operations of UCOL, Lyal French-Wright, and found him extremely open to ideas and pragmatic approaches that serve businesses and the community.
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Whanganui & Partners will continue our close partnership with UCOL and businesses to ensure the upcoming reforms elevate our local campus and will continue to facilitate that vital connection between UCOL and our employers.
• Mark Ward is chief executive of Whanganui and Partners.