The government is proposing to redefine roles for education providers and the ITOs, and to merge New Zealand’s existing institutes of technology and polytechnics into one entity – the New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology
Vocational education reforms – good or bad for the construction industry?
In February, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced wide-ranging proposals that would reform New Zealand’s system of vocational education, and while submissions have now closed, were the proposed changes welcomed or renounced by the construction industry?
“The world around us is changing rapidly and our education system needs to keep up,” Mr Hipkins said when announcing the proposed reforms. “At a time when
we’re facing critical skill shortages, too many of our polytechnics and institutes of technology are going broke. The strong labour market is encouraging
young people to move directly into the workforce rather than continue in formal education, when it needs to be smarter and accommodate both. And our
system isn’t geared up for the future economy, where retraining and upskilling will be a regular feature of everyone’s working life.
“Instead of our institutes of technology retrenching, cutting programmes and closing campuses, we need them to expand their course delivery in more locations around the country. It’s time to reset the whole system and fundamentally rethink the way we view vocational education and training, and how it’s delivered.”
The government’s proposal is for a unified, coordinated, national system of vocational education and training, which would involve redefined roles for education providers and industry bodies, namely the industry training organisations (ITOs), and merging New Zealand’s 16 existing institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs) as one entity, with the working title of the New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology.
In place of the ITOs, the government would fund ‘industry skills bodies’ which would provide skills leadership, coordinate industry efforts to identify (and plan to address) future skills needs, set skill standards, and approve programmes in vocational education across the entire training system.
Over 1500 submissions were received on the proposed reforms and final recommendations are now being developed. These will be presented to Cabinet for decision by mid-2019, after which an announcement will be made.
So are the proposed reforms good news or otherwise for the construction industry?
BCITO, the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation, held a sector summit in early March to discuss the proposals in detail, and to understand their impact on the current and future training system. Attendees included a broad mix of industry leaders and employers who work with the ITOs and polytechs.
BCITO CEO Warwick Quinn: “In construction, most people learn from mentoring and support; they don’t learn from books. This focus needs to be retained in any reforms”
Two-thirds of attendees did not support the government’s proposals, voicing their concerns around the negative impact such widespread changes would have
on the sector, at a time when the country needs to build more capacity and capability.
“The building and construction sector has today rejected the government’s proposal to reform vocational education,” announced BCITO CEO Warwick Quinn. “Summit attendees have made it clear that they value sector control of both the standard setting and delivery of training. While they appreciate the greater control of standard setting under the proposals, they are concerned that control of the delivery is at risk.
“They value the relationships they have with their ITOs. Under the current system, our field staff build strong relationships with every individual employer and apprentice. This allows us to customise their learning. In construction, most people learn from mentoring and support. They don’t learn from books. This focus needs to be retained in any reforms, and the sector is sceptical how this will work in the new system.”
Garry Fissenden, CEO of The Skills Organisation, New Zealand’s largest ITO which represents 22 industries, 4400 employers and over 10,000 apprentices, is critical not just of the proposed changes, but the length of the consultation process offered to employers and the trade education sector.
“We are concerned that so little time has been dedicated to better understanding industry needs and reservations about the proposed changes – which would have a dramatic effect on the career prospects of the next generation of young New Zealanders, as well as having an immediate impact on business,” says Mr Fissenden.
Garry Fissenden, CEO of The Skills Organisation: “We are concerned that so little time has been dedicated to better understanding industry needs and reservations about the proposed changes”
“Despite seeing the results of research from more than 900 employers which found the majority say they will hire fewer apprentices if the proposal to move
the managing of apprentices away from ITOs is implemented, the government remains resolute in its desire to fast-track this reform through.”
He says the proposed model is flawed and has been universally condemned by employers who are in essence the ‘customer’ of the education sector.
“Employers are consistently telling us that polytechs are too far removed from industry to be able to turn out work-ready trainees. In contrast, the current industry training system was specifically designed by industry to meet their needs, and any reform the sector undergoes should focus on the issues today’s businesses are facing.” he adds.
Ross Beal, chairman of Master Electricians New Zealand, which covers around 1100 electrical contracting businesses with an estimated 9000 workers, says the government proposal is “heavily flawed” and is likely to have “horrific” consequences for the stability of the industry. His organisation’s analysis of wage data from industry surveys shows that consumers could pay 65% more for the same service, if the reforms are implemented.
“Our concern is that the cost of getting an electrician will one day be on par with that of a visit to the dentist,” he says. “We currently have a nimble, highly responsive training organisation which the government plans to dramatically undermine with these new changes – it will set industry learning back a decade.”
Ross Beal, chairman of Master Electricians New Zealand: “The introduction of a new barrier into the training model will result in a significant disruption to the supply of skilled labour over the coming years”
Mr Beal says the proposed polytech-based model focuses on quantity, but doesn’t deliver a training outcome that employers have had any say in, yet they
are expected to take on the risk of employing the trainees. “I believe the government has actually forgotten employers are the drivers of industry
at the moment, and if they don’t create the training spaces for apprentices in employment, you won’t need a training model anyway.
“Under the new education reforms, the critical role of ITOs would be diminished and polytechs moved to take their place. In highly regulated industries such as our own, the introduction of a new barrier into the training model will result in a significant disruption to the supply of skilled labour over the coming years.”
A looming disaster
Andrew Bayly, the National party’s building and construction spokesperson, says that for the past 25 years it has been the role of ITOs to build close relationships with employers to help train people entering the industry, and that while polytechnics and universities have also been important, their focus has been more on building closer relationships with learners rather than employers.
National’s building and construction spokesperson, Andrew Bayly: “A merger such as the government proposes will not deliver the number of skilled people the industry so desperately needs”
“That’s why the government’s radical proposal to merge the polytechnics and ITOs and centralise them out of Wellington has alarm bells ringing. It’s a looming disaster – one that will inevitably lead to job losses and, more importantly, the loss of autonomy.
“The biggest barrier to success is not the strategic intent, but the issue of culture and how you manage that and blend it into a productive asset. In
most cases, mergers result in exactly the opposite: a toxic work environment with little alignment of vision and how to achieve it,” Mr Bayly says.
“That’s the last thing the building sector needs. A merger such as the government proposes will not deliver the number of skilled people the industry so desperately needs. We need to be looking at how we help and support employers to take on people in training and apprenticeships, and how we better promote the industry as an attractive career option.”
Safety is another key concern, with SARNZ – the industry body representing the country’s scaffolding, access and rigging employers and workers – saying thousands of construction workers will be under an increased risk of a workplace accident if the proposed reforms go ahead.
“Our concern is that if training is taken away from the ITOs, where trade organisations have a direct involvement, and completely handed over to polytechs, we will expose workers to even more accident risk than they already encounter each day,” says SARNZ general manager Jessica Pritchard.
“Workplace safety standards are constantly evolving.
SARNZ general manager Jessica Pritchard: “Workers in the construction industry deserve to have a model in place that can react dynamically to improved safety standards”
“For example, there is an increased focus on how severe wind affects the structures on a construction site. As we learn more about the impact of environmental
weather conditions from new research, we are able to quickly distribute that information throughout the industry, ensuring they are up to date with
the latest safety standards.”
Ms Pritchard says removing the ITOs will take away a critical mechanism for the rapid dissemination of new training procedures – their relationship with trade organisations. “Workers in the construction industry deserve to have a model in place that can react dynamically to improved safety standards, helping to ensure their safety in the workplace – we cannot see how this would be possible under the government’s proposal.
“Over recent years, industries such as our own have worked closely with ITOs to develop a way of integrating new standards into the training of apprentices, as well as their colleagues. An important aspect of the training is that it comes from those at the coalface which gives the workers more confidence in the application of the standards. Without this, we could have potential inconsistencies in the way workers are trained, with different sites applying different methods and processes.”
A fix for longstanding issues
However, not all industry voices have been so critical. Civil Contractors New Zealand says the proposed reforms have the potential to fix longstanding issues with vocational training and education, but will need careful management and more recognition of on-the-job training.
Chief executive Peter Silcock says that while it is clear the vocational education system requires major change, the critical issue will be maintaining interest and engagement from employers and trainees while any changes are brought in. “Like many other industries, civil construction is experiencing a major skills shortage. We need well-trained people to work on New Zealand’s infrastructure, and it’s important the skills of these talented people are recognised through national qualifications.”
Civil Contractors New Zealand chief executive Peter Silcock: “The critical issue will be maintaining interest and engagement from employers and trainees while any changes are brought in”
Mr Silcock says that while degrees and diplomas are important for civil engineers and surveyors, targeted training and qualification in specific job skills
are needed, with relevant one or two-day off-job courses the biggest gap for the civil construction industry. He asserts that the proposed industry
skills bodies would be better equipped to support and address industry needs.
“There’s a lot of conjecture around the details of this proposal – details that are still being worked out. It’s understandable that people involved in the vocational education sector are concerned about their positions, but it’s also important we keep things realistic and avoid scaremongering lest we undermine our vocational education pathways.”