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Skills focus required, targeted at future jobs

Opinion Piece

As I described in my letter last Saturday, Gisborne has significant growth opportunities in front of it.

This is good news as the region’s unemployment rate is at 8 percent, with more than 5000 people on a benefit. Job growth presents a real opportunity.

One of the bigger challenges is in skills, training and pathways to employment.

We would do well as a community to focus, with urgency, on persuading the Government to substantially increase investment in locally-based vocational training and pathways to employment programmes.

To make headway into our stubbornly high unemployment rate we may need, for example, 300 additional training and apprenticeship places being delivered by 2019, and a $10 million boost in training and support programmes.

This proposal goes well beyond the good but modest training initiatives in the Tairawhiti Economic Action Plan.

The Government has allocated $1 billion per year for regional development, so the funding is potentially there. What’s needed is a robust case and senior local leadership.

Consideration could be given to establishing a local leadership body to present the funding case to the Prime Minister and to set targets.

Those targets could, for example, include: Achieving a 5 percent unemployment rate by December 2020; and reducing beneficiary numbers by 1000-2000. The targets would then help shape the regional jobs and training plan.

New Zealand First has been a strong advocate for vocational training and regional development. The new Minister for Regional Development should be an early port of call.

Labour has proposed 10,000 new jobs for long-term unemployed young people. Gisborne should aim to secure several hundred a year of these new six-month jobs in areas such as community and conservation work. This includes planting of natives and riparian areas, and fencing where there is a great need to make progress on soil conservation and fresh water quality across the region, including urban catchment areas.

The Labour Government has proposed 4000 new dole-for-apprenticeship places. Our initiative could help facilitate local employers to take on additional apprentices in areas ranging from construction to forestry and horticulture.

Beyond that, to achieve our full employment target there is a need for:

• a big step-up in secondary school effort to support the young who are not succeeding;

• school transition support, including more places in trades training-type academies and work experience;

• transition support programmes from the benefit into training or work, including drug and alcohol support;

• training to support the proposed wood processing plants; and

• higher-level vocational training.

Labour’s proposed night classes could help upskill the existing workforce and adult learners.

To enable full employment we may need more flexible employment arrangements, including a good mix of full- and part-time jobs. Major infrastructure, including roads and the port expansion, and factory construction projects, should have a requirement for local training and local apprentices built in.

From January 1, 2018 the student allowance increases by $50 per week and the first year of study will be fees-free. This is great news for students, and for our future. However, there is a very real risk we will not have the right type of training in place to enable locals to take up the new skilled jobs. This is where the proposed $10m funding boost kicks in.

EIT has done a good job in introducing higher-level qualifications and strengthening its trades provision. Now may be the time to take the next step up.

As a region we appear to have a significant gap in level 5-and-above vocational courses and diplomas. It may be time to start the collaborations needed to bring those higher-level courses here, in areas from project to forest management. I’m concerned our local workforce will miss out on the skilled and higher-paying jobs if we don’t get the higher-level training programmes in place now.

Additional funding needs to be tightly focused on the future jobs, for example trades, diesel engineers and civil engineering to support our infrastructure needs, and mental health support. Robust labour market analysis is needed to guide this provision.

To manage its education budget and support regional development, the Government may need to cap courses that are not aligned to future local jobs. We can’t take the risk of not developing the skills the region will need — that would leave locals displaced from those jobs.

The key point is Gisborne needs to take an active role in designing a major boost to regional training, and that training needs to be aligned to the local labour market. We have a very real opportunity to take strides today on the path to full employment.

John Kape