As the consultation period for the vocational education reforms hurtles by, industry and employers are grappling with what the proposed changes mean for them. Feedback has been mixed to date, with some industries expressing concern about the implications for industry training.

But Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the reforms do meet the needs and concerns he is hearing from employers and industry.

“The idea that industry and business will somehow be shut out of it is completely wrong  – it’s the opposite,” says Hipkins.

“One of the perennial frustrations I hear from employers is that they don’t have any say in what is delivered through the polytech system. And people come out of the polytech system into their workplaces and they feel like they’re not ready for the jobs that they’re employing them to do.”

“But then at the other end, the other frustration you hear from employers all the time is that the system at the front line is incredibly difficult to navigate, because you’ve got multiple ITOs and multiple training providers all beating down their door… so what they’re saying is they want that system to be coordinated and streamlined, which is what we’re proposing to do by consolidating it,” says Hipkins.

“The other thing we hear from employers is that some of the training that is done through the polytechs could be better done on the job. And as long as you’ve got two competing systems then it’s difficult to bring that kind of clarity to the decision making.

“At the front end you’ve got employers saying, ‘this is the stuff we think you should go away and train for, and this is the stuff we think you could do on the job’.

“And at the top end you’ve got industry collectively saying these are the standards we think needs to be met by anyone working in our field.

“It shouldn’t matter where the training is delivered; once you’ve met the standard, you’ve met the standard,” says Hipkins.

Industry body for the dairy sector, DairyNZ welcomes this approach.

“We are pleased to see the appetite for change – the current model has not been working as efficiently as it might for dairy,” says DairyNZ’s Associate Strategy & Investment Leader Geoff Taylor.

Taylor says the dairy sector wants to play a core role in setting the vocational education standards for the sector and ensuring that the standards are met.

“We believe that off-the-job training and on-the-job training should be provided in a complementary, rather than competitive, way,” he says.

“It is important that vocational education is delivered in a way that supports farmers and their staff to get the skills needed to run effective and efficient businesses.”

Similarly, the New Zealand Aged Care Association, representing employers within the residential aged care industry, says the most important thing is that the system needs to be both responsive and accountable to the needs of industry.

“In whatever form the system takes, training needs must react to the changes that are happening in the industry, an example being the growing area of dementia care.  Any new system must be nimble and flexible,” says chief executive Simon Wallace.

David Kelly, chair of the New Zealand Construction Industry Council agrees that industry training shouldn’t compete with provider-based training.

But he also doesn’t want to see apprenticeships and on-the-job training diminish as a result of any collaboration between on-the-job and provider-based systems.

“In our industry, on-the-job training works best – not necessarily for all, but for most,” he says.

Kelly says it is very important for industry to be involved in setting standards, as they are best placed to witness changes in real time.

“Whatever is designed has to engage employers.”

Not all industries are supportive of a system that allows employers to dip between off-the-job and on-the-job training. Representing the automotive repair industry, the Collision Repair Association believes that polytechs are not necessarily well placed to meet their training needs.

“Historically, polytechs have played only a small part in meeting our training needs. ITOs were set up by industry specifically to perform this function and it is something they do very well,” says general manager Neil Pritchard.

“It is unrealistic to expect polytechs to fulfil a role that has never been part of their mandate.”

Josh Williams, chief executive of Industry Training Federation agrees with the Minister that there needs to be more collaboration between industry training and tertiary providers, but he’s not convinced that this will happen under the proposed reforms.

“I agree that the system could be more unified – but you won’t get that by taking away industry’s role. And I don’t think subsidising the polytech sector is the answer.”

Williams is concerned what effect the loss of industry voice will have on employers.

“What is in the proposal to make it easier for more employers to engage in the system?” he asks.

“We don’t see a strong track record of ITPs and PTEs supporting apprenticeships.”

He points to what happened to apprenticeships in New South Wales after a similar shake-up of their vocational education system. The reforms streamlined the ten autonomous TAFE NSW institutes into “one commercially focused organisation, supported by a single, lean corporate office”. This led to a significant decrease in enrolments and apprenticeships in parts of NSW.

Williams is concerned we’re heading down the same path with a similar recommendation to centralise New Zealand’s polytech sector.

A survey of more than 920 employers from around New Zealand conducted over the past two weeks by ITO The Skills Organisation echoed these concerns, finding that employer confidence in the proposed structure was so low that more than half (55%) said they will either stop hiring apprentices or take on less apprentices.

“Seven out of ten (69%) employers said the changes will bring uncertainty on how the training process will work. The majority of the employers feel the proposed changes will significantly impact on their ability to take on apprentices,” says chief executive Garry Fissenden.

Two thirds (66%) of employers surveyed felt the proposed changes would be out of touch with their needs and signal a shift towards more theory based training.

A further 61% said it would become more difficult to train apprentices with almost two thirds (65%) saying the restructure would discourage employers from taking on trainees at this level.

“The reality is that most employers do not believe polytechs will be able to provide trainees with the practical skills they need to be immediately productive,” says Fissenden.

Chief executive of Skills Active Aotearoa Dr Grant Davidson shares Williams’ concerns that the suggested reforms will not bring about collaboration between New Zealand’s ITOs and polytechs. However, Davidson is adamant it can be done.

In recognition that workplaces struggle to provide the theoretical components of exercise qualifications, and polytechs struggle to provide the necessary real-life experience, Skills Active (the ITO for ngā mahi a te rēhia, sport, recreation, exercise, snowsport and performing arts) partnered with Open Polytechnic to launch what Davidson describes as “a true collaborative model” – a programme for all learners whether they’re on-the-job or not.

“Will the Minister’s vision for vocational education lead to equally learner-centric solutions? No. My belief is that the vital relationships with employers and workplaces, a strength of the current industry training model, will be dismantled.”

But Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the partnership between Skills Active and Open Polytechnic is exactly the sort of example that could work under the new model.

“While these are proposals and any design would be carefully worked through with industry, yes, this is the type of collaboration we are looking for, but on a much larger scale and with less duplication,” says Hipkins.

“There is no real reason why the learners or the business operators in the case outlined here should not expect just one interface to deal with, not two, offering joined-up practical and theoretical training and with a bigger emphasis on pastoral care during the training.

“In addition, changes to the funding system to bring about more collaboration are a fundamental part of the proposals,” says Hipkins.

Tertiary education advisor Roger Smyth agrees that getting the funding right is key and  believes the  government’s technical discussion document on the funding of vocational education poses many of the right questions.

“A big part of the solution has to lie in a new funding system for vocational education, one that recognises all the elements of vocational education – brokering; supporting employers to undertake training; supporting learners on the job; high quality off-job courses; the cost of capital; the cost of bringing expert industry practitioners into training to complement the employer as trainer.  And the costs of managing the proposed industry skills body system in a way that gives those bodies a genuine leadership role, rather than a consultative/ rubber stamp role.”

How the funding will work exactly is some of the finer detail that is expected to be shaped after the consultation process. Hipkins is keen for people to take full advantage of the consultation period, which he says is tight by necessity; tertiary recruitment officers need certainty as soon as possible.

“Those who are engaging constructively are really going to help shape the proposals that we’ve got,” says Hipkins.

“How we talk about it and how we conceptualise it is a big part of allaying any concerns about how it might work.”

Consultation ends 27th March. More information can be found here.

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