Josh Williams says on-the-job training is the most effective tertiary education.

Education people have been talking about the future a lot lately, and last week's Budget had some wins for our kind of education - that is on-the-job training for skills and qualifications. New Government investment will give our skilled workers a much-needed boost, in particular apprentices, Maori and Pasifika trades' trainees and workplace literacy programmes.

With several industries facing major worker shortages, the investment is forward-thinking. In the 21st century, to keep up with the rapid pace of change, we need continued investment in our workers and workplaces.

But the pace of technological change hasn't been met by tertiary education, according to the Government's Productivity Commission. Our education system, it says, hasn't responded quickly enough to the new world of learning via computers.

On the other side of Parliament, Labour has been running its own commission, the Future of Work, which suggests that workplaces are rapidly transforming and jobs are being replaced and automated.


In both discussions, talk of "lifelong learning" is back. It doesn't mean training for old people, it means education throughout life because you're going to need to learn stuff along the way, especially since things change quickly.

And at the moment, your tax dollars don't really go towards that and the education system doesn't really look like that. Most attention and effort and resource is headed to education institutions, mostly for pre-employment training, mostly of the young, mostly before they've really got going in the workforce.

How's that been working out so far? I hear employers across many areas say things like, "Well, yes, we take on graduates, but then we have to start again with them." Another response is, "Why do they spend three years when we could have got them up to speed in six months." And gosh knows, industry still finds itself having to do an awful lot of remedial work on the very basics, in far too many cases.

We also read a lot lately about skills shortages, which is true and requires urgent effort, but also assumes those education people are going to create a reservoir of people with the right skills that industry can tap into.

But how can they? I was recently out at a heavy automotive outfit that maintains and repairs the sort of kit that no public or private training provider is ever going to be able to afford. The manufacturers issue systems and procedural updates on a weekly basis. And every hour these enormous and sophisticated machines are up on hoists is costing someone major dollars and productivity. So they train their people, because they have to.

And of course you can't just learn everything on the internet. Even those virtual reality helmets don't cut it quite yet. In the end, across the workforce, we have to train our people on the actual thing.

2 Jun, 2016 2:30pm
3 minutes to read

So I'm wondering if one way to fix the education system is for workplaces to become the education system.

Maybe the new model we are after is one where the learning happens using real things in real situations, where industry says what the needed skills are and arranges opportunities to train on the job. If there are missing bits, or underpinning theory that needs to happen, we can arrange that with education providers.

Then we'd know we're giving people the right skills, because, um, they are the right skills. And we know it's making a difference to productivity because the learning is happening inside and as part of a productive enterprise.

But wait there's more: what if this stuff was available to all ages - kids straight out of school for sure, but also mid-career and older workers who need a short chunk of relevant learning, or to retrain. And instead of making kids pay big fees and rack up student debt before learning how to work, we could give them jobs and they can earn money while gaining their skills and getting qualified.

Ready for the twist? I've just described New Zealand's current industry training and apprenticeships system. The new idea is an old idea, born in part out of an earlier wave of lifelong learning excitement. Today, 138,000 workplace trainees and apprentices are being supported to learn on the job, using 7 per cent of the tertiary budget. Just for contrast, there are 146,000 university students, attracting 53 per cent of the tertiary budget, and that's leaving aside the loans and allowances keeping them alive.

So if you want the right skills at the right time, get hold of your Industry Training Organisation. And if our tertiary education system wants to be more responsive to the needs of a rapidly changing workforce, deliver skills to people throughout their working lives, and make sure this training results in productivity, then continued investment in workplace education and training is certainly a good place to start.

Josh Williams is chief executive of the Industry Training Federation.