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Your industry can’t attract staff? It’s up to you to solve the problem

You’ll be aware of the strange phenomenon of the national skills shortage coexisting with high youth unemployment. It’s a problem across the developed world, driven partly by demographics and partly by economic activity. Industries across the spectrum are finding it difficult to attract skilled staff, and frequently the call is for ‘the government‘ to restrict entry into popular courses like law and accounting, and to increase the number of engineering or ICT graduates, plumbing apprenticeships or whatever.

While governments have increased funding for technical subjects, it would take a very brave government to start directing who should do what courses, at what level. Who’s going to force your son or daughter to do a course that they don’t want to enter? Last time I checked, we don’t live in a dictatorship. In any case, government workforce planning never works, except either in very macro or micro situations. (By the way, the number of practicing lawyers and accountants in New Zealand isn't much different to what it was 15 years ago.  However, law and commerce have become default qualifications for many who in earlier times would have studied liberal arts, and with better employment outcomes, so hardly a problem. For liberal arts fans, please note  that the general increase in tertiary education participation over the last 10 years means that the number of arts graduates is higher today, so we're not talking about the arts missing out).

Demographics and population aside, the real problem is that we technology industry employers haven’t done enough at an early stage in the education process to get kids excited about working in our industries. Parental and academic snobbery made learning a trade something to be seen as second-best. TV nerd stereotypes haven’t helped, nor the persistent media myth that manufacturing is dying. ICT, manufacturing and engineering have done little to counter this and attract our brightest and best.

Our tertiary education system is generally very responsive to market demand. If the kids start turning up demanding more places in a trade or technical programme, the universities and polytechnics will figure out a way to satisfy that demand. Right now, it isn’t there, and it’s up to employers and industries to stimulate it. Singapore didn’t direct its schoolchildren to do engineering; but government and industry together got them excited about the opportunities and provided the places for them to learn.

Kids aren’t stupid - they just need information. It’s simple - tell people (parents, students and teachers) about your industry. Do it early (at the start of secondary school, not the end) so they don’t give up on maths and science. Tell them how much a plumber makes by the time they’re 30. Tell them about the opportunities for big-rig truckies (who need a clean licence, so keep out of trouble). Tell them about the vast array of jobs you can do, places you can go and money you can earn in the tech industries. Tell them that the easiest way to get rich (boat/bach/Beamer) is to build your own business and to do that you need to learn about making/growing/designing/delivering/managing stuff, and the easiest way to learn that is to get a technical qualification and start working for a successful business. Tell them about your industry's heroes like Peter Maire, Neville Jordan, Rod Drury, or Sam Morgan. Get them excited - tell them.

Disclosure: I’m a former non-executive member of the NZ Tertiary Education Commission.  Updated from an article first published 10 April 2007