COMMENT:

Opinion will be divided on whether it matters that more young people are leaving school without a ticket to tertiary education. If they are leaving to go straight into a job, as a Ministry of Education official told us yesterday, it is probably a good thing.

The ministry's data shows the number leaving school before their final year rose 8 per cent last year.

The Industry Training Federation is not surprised. Chief executive Josh Williams said, "The job market is such that all sectors [want] numbers well in excess of what school leavers can provide."

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But there will be those who worry that young people are limiting their options too early. The Labour Party, when in Opposition, held a "future of work" study that set out to devise policy for a world of rapidly changing technology, constant disruption of industries and jobs, and the likelihood young people will need to be prepared for several changes of career over their working lives.

It was not a new idea, the realisation that unskilled labour was of declining value and adaptable skills would be in demand, has been around since the 1980s when local manufacturing lost protection and the economy was exposed to global markets.

Successive governments put more money into tertiary education. Polytechnical institutes expanded and new ones appeared all around the country. The secondary school curriculum and qualifications were redesigned to encourage all students to follow a path into further education.

The present Government says its fees-free policy was primarily intended as an inducement to school leavers who are not taking the courses available in technical institutes rather than for those who readily enrol in universities.

But the Government also wants more young New Zealanders in the sorts of jobs "taken" by migrant labour, which it is reducing. So it will welcome the figures we reported yesterday.

The truth is, many of those who stayed at school long enough to collect enough NCEA credits for entry to a university or polytech had no wish to be in a classroom for another three or four years, and who could blame them.

Tertiary education was a growth industry in the era of economic reform, in part because entry-level jobs were scarce. Tertiary education filled a gap and courses were probably padded out in many cases to last years longer than their content ought to have required.

As the economy has strengthened and unemployment has been replaced by labour shortages, tertiary institutes have seen a decline in their rolls. Writing in the Herald in June, the head of the Manukau Institute of Technology, Gus Gilmore, noted that "making education low or no cost hasn't fundamentally altered the trend". He said institutes were looking at ways to tailor their programmes for people in work so they did not have to take a pay cut to get ahead.

It is good that jobs are now plentiful for those who want to leave school as soon as they can. But they still need to be prepared for rapidly changing work and, hopefully, better-paying jobs. Training, on and off the job, needs to meet that need.