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NZQA must urgently bolster vocational training

Government won’t get the skilled construction industry employees it needs for KiwiBuild and other long term housing projects while its tertiary education framework treats trades qualifications as second class citizens.

This is the opinion of Warwick Quinn, chief executive of New Zealand’s largest construction trade training organisation, BCITO. Quinn says the current review of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework - NZQF - needs to urgently address the issue of vocational training.

Quinn’s call to government comes as Housing Minister Phil Twyford is under pressure after revealing only 300 KiwiBuild homes will be finished by July, as against a target of 1,000. That leaves the government already behind on targets which include 5,000 houses the following year, and 10,000 a year after that, up to a total of 100,000.

A shortage of skilled workers is only one problem, but it’s an important one.

Quinn says the view of vocational training as ‘what you do if you aren’t bright enough for university’ has to change - and he is putting that view to the government.

Submissions on the NZQF closed on Dec. 14 last year, and a report from the NZ Qualifications Authority is due later in February.

“We expect to incorporate the feedback as we refine and expand on our proposals,” an NZQA spokesman says. “This will include considering the levels of vocational qualifications on the NZQF. A further discussion document will be released mid-2019.”

Quinn says under the current NZQA framework, a basic trade qualification sits at Level 4 and advanced trade qualifications at Level 5 and 6, while a Bachelor’s degree sits at Level 7.

“This sends the wrong signal that a vocational career is inferior to an academic-based one, despite both qualifications being similar in complexity and length.”

New Zealand will need some 80,000 new construction workers over the next five years to build the houses and other projects being planned, including KiwiBuild, Quinn says. Approximately half of these - or around 40,000 people - need a vocational qualification.

The trouble is that BCITO estimates that if nothing changes, only about 12,500 newly-qualified apprentices and trainees will enter the workforce over the next five years.

Quinn says several European and Asian countries, including Germany, Scotland and Singapore, have revamped their qualifications frameworks so there are two parallel pathways to senior positions in, say, the construction, engineering or manufacturing fields. One is an academic route, the other via vocational training.

“In these countries, the vocational pathway is seen as equally valuable and prestigious as the academic pathway."

Not so in New Zealand, where an inter-generational bias against vocational training is strong, he says. At the moment, only 2.5 percent of people going into apprenticeship courses come straight from school; 30 percent have been to university. That means a whole group of students are racking up students loans doing a degree, and then going into vocational training anyway.

“We’re not saying don’t go to university, but we are saying don’t write trades off as an inferior second choice. Instead, see it as a different pathway to get qualifications and to be successful.

“Unless that’s clear and transparent in the NZQA framework, people are never going to get that message.”

Quinn would like to see 4,000 qualified construction industry people coming out of four-year apprenticeships each year, up from 2,500 at present. This would boost the locally-trained workforce by 20,000 over five years. Government figures show the construction sector employed about 244,800 in the September quarter last year. 

“We can’t produce more houses unless we have more workers. We are sending a message to government: How are you going to continue to attract people into an area where you need skills when your messages and current framework reinforces a message that the academic route is the better one?”

For more on Newsroom, see KiwiBuild shortfall under the microscope

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