New Zealand schools focus on enabling students to gain qualifications but are young people leaving school with the skills they need to succeed in life? In the first of a two-part investigation in our Making the Grade series, education reporter Amy Wiggins explores whether schools could do more to prepare students for work.
Georgina Broughton-Kake’s first job after leaving school was door-to-door sales.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, to be honest. That job was pretty much full commission and I didn’t exactly know what that meant,” she said.
“I didn’t really know... how to read a contract properly, things like that.
“I went into it blind.”
After leaving that job, the 19-year-old went through the CadetMax programme run by the Auckland Business Chamber and the Ministry of Social Development. It was then that she realised she was lacking many skills needed to succeed in the workforce.
“When I had my first job as a sales rep I pretty much acted like I was still in high school. I didn’t really have a professional manner going into it,” Broughton-Kake said.
“I would talk to my boss like he was just my friend.”
But she learned from her mistakes and developed a lot of the skills she needed through the CadetMax course, which supports young people into work and teaches work-readiness skills.
Broughton-Kake, who graduated from Epsom Girls Grammar in 2021, admits she didn’t know about the Seek job website; how to write a CV or cover letter; or how to speak, act or dress for a job interview until she did the course and wishes she had learned the skills at school.
“Even if it’s just a couple of lessons on just the basics of how to write a CV, what to expect, how to read a contract, what certain things mean and just learning about the fundamentals that you need when you’re going into the workforce.”
Employer organisations interviewed by the Herald say her story is typical. Many complain that young workers increasingly lack fundamental skills like literacy, sending emails and communicating face-to-face, which is costing their companies time and money.
Some business leaders want schools to make students more work-ready. Schools reply that they have programmes in place to help students develop the skills if they want to, but stress they are not “work readiness organisations”.
Employers believe they are seeing the effects of a long-term fall in literacy and numeracy skills among New Zealand students to below the level needed to function in society.
But they say “soft skills” like face-to-face communication, reliability, initiative, time management and teamwork are also declining and increasingly becoming an issue.
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Simon Bridges said school leavers were less prepared for the workforce today than previously, which had prompted the organisation to raise the issue with both schools and the Government.
“As but one story among others I’ve been told by colleagues in the field, was that of a first-year student on an apprenticeship. The employer asked them to sweep the workspace as an initial task and they said no and phoned their dad, who complained. As a result that young person is no longer an apprentice: the employer decided they weren’t motivated enough for the role.”
Bridges said Covid-19 had a large role to play in the decline because teachers had needed to make accommodations to get students through to the next year after large stretches of lockdown.
That had created a widening attitude gap between school leavers and employers who were now dealing with higher rates of non-attendance and punctuality issues than they had seen traditionally, he said.
Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce chief executive Leeann Watson said, anecdotally, they were hearing about the decline in skills more regularly than before - particularly the drop in literacy and numeracy.
She said companies were increasingly having to spend time upskilling young staff in basic skills that were once assumed, including literacy and numeracy, critical thinking, communication and time management.
“While businesses already invest in new employees, we are hearing that because some of these fundamental skills are lacking, the investment required both in terms of time and money to upskill, means productivity is compromised and this is another increased cost for business,” she said.
The chamber had recently heard from an employer who had to sit down with a young employee and spend time teaching them how to write an email in a work-appropriate way - a story echoed by other industry representatives.
A Skills Shortage Survey carried out by the Employers and Manufacturers Association and published in March found 40 per cent of businesses said job applicants were lacking work readiness skills.
Of those, 83 per cent said applicants were lacking communication skills, 73 per cent lacked initiative, 66 per cent lacked problem-solving skills and 66 per cent lacked the ability to work as a team.
The survey also found 44 per cent of applicants lacked appropriate levels of literacy and 43 per cent lacked numeracy skills - double the number reported in last year’s survey.
‘We can’t give them the attitude and the habits’
“We can give them the knowledge and the skills, but we can’t give them the attitude and the habits. That’s what they need to come with.”
Bidfoods human resources manager Heather Clark agreed it was the soft skills the company had found most problematic when hiring staff straight out of school to work in the warehouse or call centre.
“You’re going from a fairly informal school environment... and you come into the workplace and you have a formal contractual relationship and the level of understanding about the requirements of that can be a little loose.
“Hours of work are not guidelines, they are a requirement.”
Clark said young people also often failed to understand how important it was to communicate effectively and professionally in the workplace or to treat constructive criticism as a learning experience.
“We’ve got coaching programmes here, we’ve got development programmes.
“So we can certainly do that but we can’t change their habits. If they stay up all night gaming or if they just stay in that grunt mentality, that’s harder to change.”
Clark believed schools should play a role in preparing students for the expectations and realities of life in the workforce.
She said schools could encourage students to talk about their attitudes and habits and how they might need to adjust them for work, as well as discussing the norms and culture of the school and how to pick up on those nuances in a workplace.
Giving students a dose of reality by showing them the salary surveys to highlight how much they were likely to earn in their first jobs would also help, Clark said.
She was complimentary of students who did work experience with the company through school gateway programmes and said most of those students had good attitudes and were keen to learn.
“I think most of the kids who have chosen that path recognise they’re not going to go to university but they’re still committed to their ongoing development and I think that’s a great opportunity.”
‘Young people are missing soft skills and attitude’
Bridges agreed school leavers seeking work were “definitely” not equipped with all the skills employers wanted.
“What employers tell us all the time is that they are looking for people who are more work-ready than they appear to be at the moment.
“The feedback is that young people are missing soft skills and attitude rather than practical skills.”
Bridges said the priority areas were making sure young people were reliable, got to work on time, were confident in communicating, could have difficult conversations when needed and took initiative.
He also said a lot of young people told them they did not know how to find work.
“Many lack a basic job skill toolkit - a CV, a cover letter, interview skills, an understanding of how to search for jobs, ID, a driver’s licence.”
Business New Zealand director of advocacy Catherine Beard agreed literacy and numeracy skills were dropping and soft skills were not being taught well.
Beard said young people applying for jobs often lacked interpersonal communication skills and were hesitant to pick up the phone and talk to somebody.
‘Below a certain level, it’s an awful lot harder’
University lecturers and employers have been noticing the shortfall in school leavers’ skills for the last decade, leading both to lobby the Government and schools for change.
A 2013 report by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) on increasing the number of engineering graduates noted many students who wanted to study the subject at tertiary level had not taken the right subjects at school.
Even those who met the entry requirement were still underprepared for tertiary-level maths and physics, the report said.
A 2014 report for the TEC confirmed many students who left school with NCEA qualifications still had literacy and numeracy levels below what was needed to function in society.
Those studies provided the impetus for a change to University Entrance and NCEA literacy and numeracy requirements, which are in the process of being updated.
Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said they were supportive of the new literacy and numeracy tests being brought in as a requirement for NCEA.
“We’re always doing tweaking because we are seeing patterns that make it more likely that, if we can get students to that standard, they are going to succeed if they want to commit to degree-level studies,” Whelan said.
“What we’re finding is that below a certain level, it’s an awful lot harder. It’s a much more stressful experience as students have to bridge a greater gap to have the skills they need to be able to succeed.”
Employers too have been calling for change for almost a decade, as seen in the Labour Party’s 2016 Future of Work report, led by Grant Robertson when the party was in opposition.
“Some practical life skills are not currently being taught as part of the curriculum, but these skills are often demanded of workers across many occupations,” the report said.
It found that employers “commonly identify an ‘attitude gap’ as much as a skills gap in recruiting young people”.
“Throughout the Future of Work Commission employers have expressed the need for skilled workers who have a grasp on what has been called ‘soft skills’ or ‘enterprise skills’. These can deal with the attitudinal gap that employers say they find with young people,” it said.
Attitude, communication, commitment, teamwork and a willingness to learn were identified as essential skills. Desirable skills included motivation, self-management, resilience, decision-making and problem-solving.
The five key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum, which are supposed to be fostered across all subjects throughout the 13 years of schooling, recognised the value of those skills but were being “overlooked in the rush to achieve government targets for National Standards and NCEA attainment”, the report said.
The Future of Work report prompted the formation of an online School Leavers’ Toolkit - an attempt to make sure all students had the right information about getting a job, managing their money, civics and personal well-being.
Launching the website in 2019, Education Minister - now Prime Minister - Chris Hipkins said; “We need to make sure all our young people can leave school with the skills they need to get on in life and avoid common pitfalls that can easily trip them up.”
In developing the toolkit, the Ministry of Education found many schools offered programmes to teach students those three things but it was usually only offered to a small group of students, often as optional courses. Students also struggled to pick concepts related to work-readiness and financial literacy out of subject learning and apply them to life after school.
A 2019 Education Review Office study also found no schools had progressed past the early stages of the implementation of the key competencies identified in the Future of Work report - thinking; using language symbols and texts; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.
Asked by the Herald for a school progress update on life skills, the Ministry of Education said new content on time management, email etiquette and budgeting was being added to the site.
Curriculum, Pathways and Progress associate deputy secretary Pauline Cleaver said a curriculum refresh aimed to ensure students had the literacy and numeracy skills for work or further study.
However, the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) think tank has criticised the attempt to teach personal skills such as attitude and communication independently as a waste of time.
Michael Johnston, author of NZI’s Save Our Schools report in April, said the curriculum should give teachers more specific guidance on teaching academic knowledge, rather than “key competencies”, which were learned innately.
‘It’s not all about university’
Bridges argues that schools need to understand education is not just a pathway to tertiary study.
“They need to be embedding employment at the centre of their learning and advice for senior students and, bluntly, creating a better understanding of vocational and earn-as-you-learn pathways and giving those students equal focus and recognition alongside the university outcome. It’s not all about university.”
While it was often the view that soft skills and attitudes should be developed at home, that wasn’t always the case so schools needed to help teach those basic life skills, Bridges said.
Schools could also support students with advice about writing CVs and cover letters and how to approach interviews, he said.
Bridges said students also needed a broader idea of what jobs were available.
Watson, from the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, said employers wanted to collaborate more with schools to increase skills-based training and highlight what career pathways might look like in lesser-known industries, including advanced manufacturing, automation and robotics.
Without New Zealand students being made aware of and pursuing those roles, the industry would continue to rely on immigration to fill those highly-skilled roles, she said.
Business New Zealand’s Beard said employers expected schools to be giving students a good grounding in the basics at least, so literacy and numeracy needed to improve a lot.
On top of that, she believed schools could play a part in teaching students to communicate well, work in a team and take initiative.
“I think that communication skills are so important in the workplace and schools can facilitate that. They can encourage teamwork they can encourage kids to give presentations and explain their ideas.”
‘Schools aren’t work-readiness organisations’
Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand president Vaughan Couillault disagrees with employer claims that schools need to do more to make students ready for their first job.
“Schools are designed to provide a broad foundation at Year 9 to 11 and then some credentials in Year 12 and 13. Schools aren’t work-readiness preparation spaces,” said the Papatoetoe High School principal.
“However, I would agree, the earlier students leave school, the worse prepared they are for future life anyway. I’d actually prefer that students stay at school until the end of Year 13 and then went into further education and training.”
He acknowledged a numeracy and literacy “issue” had developed in recent years which schools and the Ministry of Education were trying to remedy.
As for the soft skills, Couillault reiterated that schools were not work-readiness groups but said they did have a role to play in helping people communicate effectively and work with others.
“When you look at the key competencies in our curriculum, which are all about those soft skills, we do have a role. And there’s plenty of curriculum areas where those soft skills are overtly addressed.”
However, lockdowns and other school closures in recent years had impacted schools’ ability to effectively teach those skills, he said.
Couillault said schools still had careers advisors, who students could approach for guidance on career pathways and practical job-seeking advice, as well as compulsory careers units in Year 10 social sciences which taught the basics, including how to write a CV.
“I would push back against ‘we don’t get any of that’. I would say we get plenty of that.
“But if you’re disengaged, if you’re not at school and you’re not learning, you probably didn’t get it. Schools offer all sorts of things with regard to that and online solutions for that so, quite frankly, there are not too many excuses for, ‘I don’t know how to write a CV’.”
Most schools also offered gateway, Secondary Tertiary Alignment Resource (Star) or trades academies to give students a taste of the workforce and what was involved in certain jobs, he said.
Careers expos and online tools were available to help make students aware of the job opportunities available but it also fell partly on students to do some research themselves, he said.
‘I think it’s something that you need to be taught’
Georgina Broughton-Kake felt that her school, Epsom Girls Grammar, focused on preparing students to go to university rather than entering the workforce.
“It’s a great school but not everyone’s wanting to go to university. And even if you were to go to university, you still need those fundamental skills on how to apply for jobs.”
As for skills like communication in the workplace, Broughton-Kake said she had to quickly pick up what was expected of her when she started her current job in a call centre for the Warehouse Group.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s something that you just need to learn. I think it’s something that you need to be taught.
“If I would have had that heads-up or if I would have had that learning, I know I would have definitely done better at my first job.”
Next week: Part two - what life skills should students learn at school?