The primary industries form the backbone of New Zealand’s economy. They’re transforming themselves to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s challenges head on. And they need skilled people.

We need our schools, farms, orchards, nurseries, and vineyards to work together to open their gates to the young people who will help drive this change.

As the chief executive of the Primary ITO, I am responsible for leading the training of people in the primary sector – currently 28,000 people. I am working to build on this and attract young people who can accelerate the pace of innovation, improve farming, fishing, horticultural and processing industry practices, and continue to grow New Zealand’s largest export sector.

The future of the primary sector is being driven by innovation – not just scale. New Zealanders are connected to our land and the water and are aware of their responsibility to act as kaitiaki or guardians of our remarkable biodiversity. We all want to ensure our resources are managed sustainably for future generations.

Rapid technological developments are making it difficult for the large educational institutions to respond quickly to change and industry demands. Some estimates say 40 percent of jobs won’t exist in a few decades.

Earning and learning with apprenticeships or other work-based training is at the cutting edge. Engaging our tech-savvy youth in the primary sector will lead to innovative solutions, such as smart technology and drones, which can solve the challenges of producing more quality produce with less environmental impact.

We can offer students meaningful jobs with excellent future career prospects. We are looking for bright students with STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) skills. We also need workers with soft skills, such as marketing and languages, to help our high-end quality produce reach new international markets.

The leaders of our industries understand that we must work smarter and attract fresh thinking talent. And we are helping them do this. The Primary ITO is working with schools to introduce senior students to local farmers and good employers who can give them a taste of some of the skilled and rewarding careers they can offer.

Our Gateway and personalised SWITCh (School, Work, Industry, Transition and Change) programmes are bridging the gap from secondary school to paid employment by giving senior students meaningful work experience and genuine on-the-job learning opportunities.

Our Trades Academies are blending classroom study with on-job learning and helping 500 students in more than 30 schools find clear pathways into vocational tertiary education. The programme works alongside NCEA and lets Year 11 or 12 students combine their NCEA studies with a National Certificate in Agriculture, or Horticulture. It is a huge success. We were pleased to see the Government increase its commitment to this scheme at the launch of the Got a Trade week. However, as it relies on Government funding, there are still limited spaces available.

We also face some barriers with schools who are reluctant to disrupt their time-tables by taking students out of structured learning programmes to experience on-the-job training.

And with 85 percent of New Zealander’s living in cities, urban schools face logistical challenges to accessing rural job experiences. This is not helped by an education system which is skewed towards urban-based industries. Of the approximately $3.3 billion the Government spends each year on tertiary education, around $90 million (less than 3 percent) goes into the entire primary industries sector. It should be more.

We are proud to be taking part in this year’s Got A Trade? Got It Made! campaign, which highlights the earn and learn advantages and huge variety of on-the-job training opportunities which are open to young New Zealanders and connects them to real employers with real jobs in their regions.

Getting educated on the job builds real skills and helps our youth get financially ahead. They earn earlier, buy houses earlier than university graduates, and are financially ahead of university graduates during their working lifetime.

We know that many students leave school with no idea about what they want to do… so, they do what their parents or schools expect them to and university becomes the default choice. But in the primary sector, apprenticeships are just as valuable as a university education. They give students the hands-on experience our industries need. No university can offer face-face practical learning opportunities in the back-blocks.

Our demand for skilled workers has never been higher – an extra 50,000 primary sector qualified workers will be needed by 2025 to meet the Government’s growth demands. We need more young people to get involved and we need to say a big thank you to our industry leaders and employers who invest in them by passing on their knowledge and skills.

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