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Youth and the whanaungatanga of work

Opinion Piece

How we do help young people who are “off the grid” and have lost connection with the world of work? Some 70-90,000 young people are Not in Employment, Education or Training (or “NEET”) in a given year in New Zealand. Around 10 percent of New Zealanders aged 15-24 are long-term NEET — having been disconnected for six months or longer.

The suburb and peninsula of Matapihi, nestled in the heart of Tauranga, provides an example of how difficult youth employment can be — as well as a possible solution.

Government measurements tell one story: high employment, low incomes, limited internet access, and a significant population of young NEETs. Yet, for its community, Matapihi is a beautiful and safe place to live. Te Kura o Matapihi is a thriving immersion school and whanau networks provide housing and other forms of support.

Confounded by this divide between government NEET stats and the community's aspirations for their youth, kaumatua Tio Faulkner worked with his community to create a training and work programme for 18 young men.

A one-week block course provided forestry skills training and accreditation, followed by 12 weeks of work experience. In return, the young men had to commit to paying back the costs as they worked.

Ranging from 18 to 28, these were young men deemed “unemployable”. They were disengaged from employment and welfare, subject to various social problems, and “off the grid”.

Getting them “work ready” meant setting up a whole “life infrastructure” — digging up birth certificates, registering for bank accounts, and learning to fill out time sheets. Faulkner found himself as the head of a whanau — cooking their meals, driving them to work, equipping them with PPE, and checking in on them.

There were immediate differences. Participants started to take responsibility for themselves and their work. They walked taller. After the first month, they talked about having a sense of purpose each day. They cared for their own equipment and looked out for each other, taking turns, for example, giving the health and safety “tool box talk” each shift. At Christmas, they were able to give money to their families and Faulkner says the regular work helped connect these young men back to their whanau and community.

The programme succeeded where the Government's array of social policy and data had failed because of “the whanaungatanga of work” — the relationships that come from shared experiences which provide people with a sense of belonging.

The block course was run out at Waikari Marae in Matapihi, a familiar and safe place for them to learn without the stigma of failure. As part of the training and work experience, Faulkner included a module on tikanga Maori and local hapu history. This holistic approach was intensive, personal and targeted — something virtually impossible to replicate with large-scale government initiatives.

Matapihi and Tio Faulkner show that resilient communities who hold out hope and aroha for their young people, and their futures, are well placed to do the difficult job of getting our young people re-engaged with learning and work.

■ Rowan is a researcher at Auckland-based think tank the Maxim Institute.

Rowan Light