COMMENT:

The Government ought to be listening to the building industry's concerns about the shake-up of workforce training announced by Education Minister Chris Hipkins last month.

Under his proposals, the power to decide what skills and training an industry needs would be taken out of the hands of those who take on apprentices and given to tertiary educational institutions.

In fact the ultimate authority would be given to just one national institution. Hipkins proposes to turn the 16 polytechs around the country into branches of a single central institute.

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That element of his plan has attracted loudest criticism, mostly from regions whose polytechs are doing very well as they are, but industry would be no less concerned if polytechs were to retain their autonomy and be given the power to decide what trainees need to learn.

For a long time now employers' needs have been expressed through industry training organisations (ITOs) that buy courses from polytechs for the off-the-job component of apprenticeships and other workforce training.

Hipkins proposes to end that system, abolish ITOs and replace them with advisory bodies comprising representatives of local government and iwi as well as employers.

There "advice" would be considered by the Tertiary Education Commission in Wellington which would become the "purchaser" of polytech programmes. No wonder a building industry "summit" in Auckland on Tuesday rejected the plan.

The building and construction ITO reported widespread concern that the proposals would damage the sector at the very time it urgently needs more skilled people.

Its chief executive, Warwick Quinn, said, "Our field staff build strong relationships with every employer and apprentice. This allows us to customise their learning. In construction, most people learn from mentoring and support. They don't learn from books."

The ITO does not appear to have done a very good job in recent years. If there is a root cause of the collapse of construction companies of late it is the skill shortages that have driven the costs of big projects much higher than the companies estimated when they tendered for them. But it is doubtful a tertiary education bureaucracy would respond faster to looming shortages by providing shorter and more practical courses.

Tertiary education tends to make courses longer than they need to be and their content is more broadly theoretical, aiming to equip trainees with the rudiments of a wider range of skills rather than focusing on a specific trade. The Labour Party has a similar philosophy, believing the future of work requires adaptability rather than particular skills.

That may be true but there are needs in the present to be met. Announcing his reform of tertiary education, Hipkins sounded more concerned about falling polytech enrolments than the needs of industries.

He blamed competition between institutions to provide what employers and apprentices want. Institutions need to be made more responsive to industry, not less. The minister needs to think again.