Lawrence Watt talks to EMA chief executive Kim Campbell about the skills shortage and what employers are looking for in candidates.

How well do universities and polytechnics prepare graduates for the workplace? Will the jobs students are trained to do even be there in a decade’s time, a few years after they graduate? These are difficult questions, with concern about even doctors and lawyers being replaced, or augmented, by artificial intelligence, and too many young people training in areas like law, but not enough in others.

The days of a university graduate looking forward to having one or two jobs, in a single career, for all of their lives, have arguably disappeared. And university degrees as a rule are not necessarily about giving people the skills they need for a particular job, argues Kim Campbell, chief executive of EMA (Employers and Manufacturers Association). They provide people with the general problem-solving skills they will need at work. Many practical skills can be taught directly by employers, or firms consulting to them.

We catch up in Campbell’s office. Educated in both the United States and New Zealand, he comes at many issues eclectically and tactically. Although unemployment is now below five per cent and migrants are flooding into the country, it was only five years ago, Campbell says, that New Zealand had a net migration loss.

Campbell says there is inevitably a delay of years when training highly skilled people. He recalls a story that publicity about a new Boeing aircraft has made thousands of Americans train as engineers. But it will be years before they finish their degrees and the skills shortage is met, and no-one really knows if the jobs will still be available when they graduate.

“The speed with which the system responds is necessarily slow,” he says. Campbell believes what happens is that students and parents hear they can make a lot of money in a particular profession – then flock to law, accounting, MBAs or whatever field is fashionable.

For many jobs – excluding obvious specialist areas – does it matter too much to an employer what a graduate’s degree is in? He reckons that graduates, whether in science, arts or law, tend to have similar problem-solving skills.

Senior managers can come from a variety of backgrounds. He knows a senior manager who studied photography. Students should study something they enjoy.

He says important ‘soft skills’ or life habits that people learn at universities include the importance of showing up on time, getting on with people and striving to achieve things. To a large degree, this leaves specific job training up to employers.

So even if there are too many law graduates, the degrees provide good training in thinking, and are reasonably cheap.

Many employers now offer courses – sometimes contracting out to private providers. Although it employs many manual workers, rather than graduates, Campbell says OPAC, (Opotiki kiwifruit packers), in the Bay of Plenty, is a good example for successful employer-based training, using a firm called Trade Education Ltd. Campbell says OPAC employs many people who were previously untrained or unemployed. Being drug-free is a condition of employment, but successful job training is a bridge to continued employment.

Given the importance of farming to the national economy Campbell suggests universities like Massey should aim to be centres of excellence in farming, instead of offering the current wide range of courses and having a branch in Auckland.

In these times of low unemployment (under five per cent),
and where there is a skills shortage, Campbell reckons
New Zealand could be better utilising our migrants, many of

whom have done high-cost degrees overseas, but do low-
skilled work here, like driving taxis.

Campbell says red tape is preventing many trained migrants from fulfilling their potential in New Zealand. He notes thousands of taxi drivers are in this situation; former doctors and engineers who, for some reason, do not meet New Zealand’s professional qualifications criteria. “We need these people … we need to recalibrate the education system,” he says.

Teaching soft skills
So-called ‘soft skills’ like giving a good handshake, making eye contact, resilience, and working in a team, can make the difference to getting that first job after finishing university, school or any range of courses. When you are 16 or 17, these skills may not come naturally.

Comet Auckland is an Auckland Council CCO and charity. Its Youth Employability Programme teaches these soft skills in a range of Auckland schools to students who will soon be looking for work. The programmes have been worked out with employers and are supported by the EMA.

The skills that Comet Auckland focuses on include those basic ones that we learn on the job or socially, including giving a good handshake, making eye contact and conducting mock interviews. The programme isn’t just ‘chalk and talk’; it includes community work, work experience and workshops. It is being trialed in 16 Auckland schools and six others around the country.

The numbers according to a NZ EMA study:

  • 72% of New Zealand employers are finding it hard to recruit skilled staff
  • 56% say an ageing workforce will have an impact on their business
  • 65% say there is or soon will be a skills shortage in their industry sector
  • 36% are expecting their own businesses to grow over the next six months
  • 58% have taken a disciplinary action relating to drugs or alcohol.

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