This year’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, Māori 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, they say, hasn’t responded quickly enough to the new world of learning via our 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 – again in part because of the machines. This has big implications for education and training.

In both discussions, talk of ’lifelong learning’ is back. It’s a piece of education-speak that doesn’t seem very exciting to people outside of education, but we can’t seem to think of a more exciting word for it. It doesn’t mean training for old people; rather 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 are directed 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 one is “why do they spend three years when we could have got them up to speed in six months?” Industry finds itself having to do an awful lot of remedial work on the very basics in far too many cases.

And we also read a lot lately about skills shortages, which is true and requires urgent effort, but also kind of assumes that those education people over there 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. In the real world, every hour these enormous and ridiculously 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 real stuff to do the actual thing.

So I’m wondering if maybe 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 in the workplace, using real stuff in real situations. Where industry itself says what the skill needs are and arranges the opportunities to train on the job. And if there are missing bits, or underpinning theory that needs to happen, we can arrange that with education providers.

We know we’re giving people 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?

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 seven 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.

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.

Source: Education Review

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