Getting up to speed — or not

Summing up the Skill NZ “New Directions” conference, 21-22 May 2002

Colin James’s summing up of first day of Skill New Zealand “New Directions” conference

I am the outsider here.

That is in part because I am a journalist, the “rapporteur” who is supposed to reflect back to you something of what you have been musing on — though I suspect through a distorting mirror. I am an outsider also because I am profoundly uneducated about education. These two days are a learning experience for me.

I am also a prime example of an untrained person. I have never had any training in my life. Not the tiniest jot. My “training” when I first became a journalist was to get the fish and chips and run to and from the Post Office with the articles being sent to other newspapers via the Press Association and via the racing journalists’ lucrative “special” network.

I was expected somehow to pick up my trade by doing it, easy mechanical jobs first and then more complicated. Apart from, I think, some in-house training at the NZ Herald, there was no formal journalism training in this country at the time. That lack of training prompted me into getting involved in the journalists union: the result of which is a life membership of the Engineers Union (I leave you to ponder how that is). I then sat in wage bargaining sessions across the table from newspaper proprietors’ representatives who sneered they could get people off the street to fill up the spaces between the advertisements — and did.

Training was “claptrap” to employers in my trade when I started. Higher education was even worse. When I went to change jobs I had to weigh up carefully whether I would own up to an MA. It was a positive disincentive to employment in my trade.

Now there is journalism training in every village, it seems — I wonder about the quality of some of the establishments. I very much doubt I would get into a journalism school if I was starting out now — and, if I did get into a journalism school, I very much doubt I would get a journalism job. On reflection, it would have been no bad thing if that had applied in my day: my balance sheet would probably be a lot better because I would have had to go and get a real job where skill was valued in the pay packet.

That’s my background. Untrained — though I suppose the formal education system had given me some generic skills. I am also profoundly uneducated about education, an empty vessel for you to fill up today and tomorrow.

Let me start with one of my perspectives on the economy: the archipelago economy. There are a lot of little companies, plugged into the international economy, doing well. There seems to be nothing much wrong with our inventiveness and entrepreneurialism as a society.

But the archipelago economy leaves most people on the continental shelf — getting wet or, worse, getting drowned. The challenge for economic policy is to connect these internationalised people to the rest and lift overall performance. There’s not much fun being the low-wage haven of the South Pacific.

As Simon Carlaw said : “The development of skills of those already in the workforce is critical to achieving the standard of living they aspire to� [and] so we can all afford the health and education we expect.”

The point is that education — including training — is an economic good and a social good. That point will be made in the Budget on Thursday and, as I read it, underlies last week’s Tertiary Education Strategy: education is no longer the private good C E Beeby defined for us. It is a public good. That is a huge change in policy for a Labour party. It chimes in with what you are doing here.

That means, it seems to me — and today’s presentations underlined it — post-compulsory education must work at all levels, from cutting-edge research, through upskilling the skilled to the most basic literacy and numeracy.

On that last point, I began to wonder, listening to Stuart Hornery, why we have schools. I heard a lot today about failure and irrelevance of schools. I thought it was schools that were supposed to supply the “soft” or “generic” skills — but I have been hearing repeatedly that it is workplace training that is doing that. If that is true, it is truly awful. And, as Stuart Hornery reminded us, in the 21 century the soft skills are more important in a world where hard skills quickly become obsolete. That seemed to come through in the two workshops I dropped into .

I guess soft skills that is what my university training gave me — the ability to think — and think for myself. (Which leaves me puzzled as to why universities are getting into trade training. Shouldn’t they stick to what they allegedly can do best — and polytechnics likewise stick to an occupational focus — a point picked up by John Blakey).

I was most impressed by Stuart Hornery’s anecdotes of improvements that came out of soft-skilling: the sleeper-layers and the bridge-fixers of Queensland railways. That sort of training, he said can lead to business redesign — which surely is turning “management” on its head.

But then we know that don’t we? After the commoditisation of workers in the 1980s and 1990s management schools have rediscovered the value of the workforce — not as something to be blanketed by regulation and bullied by union bosses (who were also commoditisers in their time before the 1980s) but as contributors to better ways of doing business.

Let me now just pick up some one-off points which have stood out to me (and I have not had the chance to do more than skim the workshop notes, so I cannot do them justice):

o Learning to learn is the key survival skill of the 21st century. Hard skills quickly become obsolete. It underlies John Blakey’s theme that learning must be greater than the rate of change. It was not good enough to hear from a workshop presenter this afternoon that that person was “technically challenged” when faced with a Powerpoint presentation.

o It is the individual’s possession of skills that determines their income.

o Training can lift a worker’s morale even if it doesn’t lead to a lift in wages, it was said.

o Private-public partnership has a greater reach than private or public on its own. A subtext of mine here is that business too often expects the taxpayer to provide instead of getting on with developing their own workers to fill skill gaps. I also wonder if governments, like generals, are always fighting yesterday’s war, so today’s skills are in short supply.

o Education/learning/training in the 21 century increases the need for brokers, navigation tools, guidance providers — that’s the public-private thing again. This is a factor in many areas of the economy and society, so it is no surprise it is so in education too

o Best practice comparisons with other sectors can be helpful to trainers.

o Moore’s law is a powerfully important driver of the need for workplace training (as John Blakey said)

o For, we were told, we are in a revolution — a paradigm shift — and we don’t know where it is taking us. Max Kerr therefore made it clear there must be changes yet and he suggested:

— a goal

— improved linkages between qualifications and kinds of learning

— more mixing, blending and matching between the classroom and the workplace — which he said cannot be a substitute for the classroom

— access for those lacking education

— sustained empirical research

Underlying all this is the truism that knowledge is what makes people rich — so we talk about the knowledge society, the knowledge economy.

I want to finish with something that has puzzled me. I haven’t heard much today about aspirations.

Learning/education/training is an individual activity and the most valuable activity is that which is not forced on the individual but driven by forces within the person. Preferably the driver is not fear but an expectation and wish for improvement — training must be an opportunity not an escape route from fear. And those who shy away from learning/training because they fear they will not fit or fail need to be enticed in. That too comes back to aspirations.

Several speakers today said they find that workers do in fact want to learn, once they get over various hurdles. Paul Goulter said: “I’ve never met a worker who doesn’t want to learn.” Others have recounted experiences of workers initially resisting workplace training but eventually joining in and getting personal rewards out of it.

It seems to me that a large segment of our society has low expectations of life. They get that from parents who are defeated; from peers at school, then in post-school social life; then workmates. The constant message they get is: aspire to little, don’t stand out from surrounding failure.

I will be interested to hear a bit more focus tomorrow on how to lift aspirations so that this generation of kids start school wide-eyed and finish it just as wide-eyed. That theme of workplace learning being “relevant” while classroom teaching is not is deeply dismaying to me — as a taxpayer who wants value for money, of course, but also as someone who lives in this society and lives with its failures as well as its successes.

Perhaps here the notion of the “American Dream” is relevant. New migrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century kept some of their culture but subscribed to the American Dream and prospered. The notion has fallen into decay these days — that is another story — but a government that truly wants to make a difference as distinct from staying in office — a government that is, as Steve Maharey described it, a “leader, partner, facilitator and broker” — might want to find a way of brokering something like it.

Well, you can see I don’t know the answer to this terrible lack of aspiration in a big segment of our population. Perhaps I will hear some guidance tomorrow. Because the cost to the aspiring of too many unaspiring people is too high.


Colin James’s summing up of SECOND day of Skill New Zealand “New Directions” conference

Here I am in the forgettable spot — between the mercurial Andrew West and the business authority of John Roadley before me and the supreme authority of Helen Clark to follow. What can I say other than that my contribution had better be fast?

Let me start with Andrew West. I was intrigued by his notion that since 1972 our economy has been like the 1812 retreat from Moscow. That fits Bill Birch nicely: counting the dead each day and doling out rations of horsemeat. But, if so, I’m still waiting for the cannon fire, as Tchaikovsky told it.

More seriously, Andrew reminded us that information is the basic component of the universe. I understand that because I have been reading it in the New Scientist recently in a number of incomprehensible but fascinating articles. “We all live in a hologram”, it proclaimed a few weeks back. I suppose it is a bit different from living in yellow submarine where my generation has been for nigh on 40 years.

OK, so information is all of us, in all of us, around all of us, dominant. But this is not a goldrush, Andrew reminded us. He offered us his own version of what I called yesterday the archipelago economy: the IT or biotech monopoly that makes a buck, is sold to the United States, leaving the newly rich entrepreneur to retire to life in the sun, having employed rather few New Zealanders in the process — though the Ericsson/Synergy deal raises the prospect that perhaps more of this activity will stay here and be developed here than in the past.

“Our economic salvation will not reside solely with a few talented capitalists, scientists, engineers and designers,” Andrew said. Instead, he focused on the existing carbon-based industries that will be the most appropriate activities for us to inject the knowledge revolution. Our challenge is to be “the world’s first carbon-based information economy,” he said. But he also added other existing production and service industries. AND the existing workforce.

Chris Lloyd also reminded us — or informed those of us who have got too bedazzled by high-tech hype and buzzphrases like “knowledge society” — informed those of us who are thus afflicted that without replacement NOW of “maintenance” workers a lot of what we take for granted might biodegrade.

Andrew made another important point which I alluded to yesterday. Tertiary education is to be at the service of economic transformation. That is a big shift from the primacy given for 60 years to C E Beeby’s and Peter Fraser’s emphasis on the individual learning to the best of that individual’s ability.

He left us with a number of challenges and worries. Among them: skilling Maori and Pacific Islanders; funding mechanisms; reading writing and calculating. Those worries were spelt out in a disturbing report by the OECD this month: “The country has been left behind: significant gains in education levels elsewhere have not been matched to the same degree in NZ (except very recently). Both document and quantitative literacy — which I guess, translated in English, means the 3Rs — are on the low side, especially for ethnic minorities.” No wonder: our kindergartens/early childhood training are “patchy”.

Now we should pause at this point to remember that Andrew is tertiary supremo. I genuflect. This guy is more important than Don Brash was before he euthanased into politics.

And, unlike in Britain, Andrew has got workplace learning in with the institutions — and, as we know, and as John Blakey reminded us yesterday, universities, far from being hotbeds of revolution or even radicalism, are among the most conservative institutions in this country.

Let’s take a minute to recap what John Blakey said yesterday because it was a very important speech and because it came right before my summing up yesterday, so I was not able to do it justice.

John saw the EFTS system as having increased participation — but also as “the last hurrah of a tertiary system fixated on the classroom” and evincing thinking that says that the “knowledge society will be created largely in the institutions”. I may be pushing him slightly further than he wanted to go, but I took him also to be saying that the reviews and strategising under this government have shored up the “old-economy learning institutions”, as he put it. If he is right, that is a challenge for Andrew. Institutions are by definition slow-moving and conservative — wrong for fast change. I get the impression workplace learning is a lot less institutional — so if we need quick action, here is where we are more likely to find it. I think I am inclined to buy that.

John pushed for more focus on “fundamental and generic” knowledge in the institutional part of the education system — and he also wanted that not to be sacrificed in the interests of more vocational teaching.

John even went so far as to say: “Young people leaving our schools, polytechnics and universities need a robust knowledge base and a generic set of skills to make lifelong learning possible — and if that comes at some cost to some of the vocational curriculum, it is not an unacceptable tradeoff when you look at the long-term benefit” — though he did add that industry training, too, needs not be “shy of the need for more knowledge and theory, for further developing literacy and numeracy”.

In other words, it is the role of workplace training to develop vocational skills. If I pick up on the comments of other speakers, you might say that it is in the workplace that the relevance of learning becomes apparent — which, in turn, brings me full circle to coffee-break anecdotes today that say kids who go out from the school for workplace experience a day a week often develop more of a taste for those three-Rs basics.

This, I think, has been a major theme of the conference: how to get training-ready, learning-ready people out of the school system; and how better to draw — or make more porous — the dividing line between the “institutions” and practical workplace training, between “education” and “learning” and “training”. I, of course, as someone uneducated about education, have no idea how to do that; it would be grossly presumptuous of me to try. But I come away with a clear sense that it is not right now and a lot of work has yet to be done. That will need a lot of interaction, some of it intrusive. There is no such thing as education pure and simple any more and teachers, striking or otherwise, would sensibly start thinking about where they might fit a decade from now.

Some other random unconnected points from today to add to yesterday’s. Much of what has been the substance of this conference has been about the detail of delivery of workplace training — about which I am not competent to speak and in any case you will have your own notes.

So herewith those general unconnected points:

o Why do we have two wheels, fully and separately invented, on each side of the Tasman, Chris Lloyd asked? To an outsider like me, this is a good question. Rather than fiddling round with a bi-national body on therapeutics, why don’t we go for a joint workplace training system? It is, after all, a common labour market, as Chris Lloyd pointed out. The business harmonisation side of CER has stalled because the Australians can’t see any value. They might see some value in cooperating on training.

That’s just a wild thought and “sovereignty” will preclude our politicians doing much about it, I think. But perhaps the practitioners and Andrew and his helpmeets might surreptitiously make an effort.

o I agree with Chris Lloyd that some of the supposed high-tech stuff is commodity. Singapore learnt that the hard way last year when the tech-wreck hammered its supposedly up-tech economy into recession — while our commodities were doing quite well.

o There needs to be a shift from taking time out from work to train to training/learning in work time.

o The chances of success in workplace training is greatly increased if led strongly from the top, as John Roadley has demonstrated. And it helps to have “champions” in the executive.

o Training and communication are linked. This came through in workshops yesterday and again in Shona Butterfield’s contribution this morning.

o Training should not be grouped by region alone or sector alone but by both, as relevant — a message brough to us from the United Kingdom by Michael Stark and Chris. And, as a subtext of that, local skill development is tied in with regional development — a point recognised by the government in an announcement earlier this week of money to link the two.

o E-learning is going to be big. If I was going to do an MBA — god forbid — I would not for a second think of John Hood’s new memorial in Auckland. I would want a real MBA from Henley or Harvard or INSEAD.

Let me finish with another of my idiosyncrasies to add to yesterday’s and then go on to what I think has been the crux of these two days:

That idiosyncrasy is that to me a new idea is the most exciting experience. That has made these two days very interesting to someone as uneducated about education as I am. I have come across a number of ideas that may be old-hat to you but are new to me.

Primary among them is obvious when you stop for a moment to think.

Demand-pull will work. Supply-push from governments won’t.

All the handwringing in Wellington about the need to upskill to join the knowledge economy counts for zero unless an individual and that individual’s employer can see something for him and the employer in some new learning. This picks up again my theme from yesterday of the need to lift aspirations.

We heard about demand-pull from a number of speakers: for example, Michael Stark and Paul Goulter.

It has two main elements:

o FIRST: Individuals who don’t want to learn are not likely to learn much, whether that is in the government’s institutions or in workplaces. The Gateways programme may be doing something about that. A kid who discovers she needs some better maths and reading/writing to do something she wants to do in a workplace is likely to learn more maths and English. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Unions, too, could do a lot more. Peer pressure — sorry, peer encouragement — to learn might be one of the best ways to lift demand from individuals. Unions could play a part in that — though in a fragmenting workforce, a large portion of which doesn’t not want to be unionised, there are limits to what unions can do.

o SECOND: Companies which don’t want a more skilled workforce are not likely to institute learning systems; they’ll go on complaining about shortages and doing nothing about it, except perhaps, as Chris Lloyd warned, closing down the plant.

And recall Paul Goulter’s comment this morning about the “absent partner”: 15 employers here is either an appalling disgrace or this whole conference is an irrelevant self-indulgence.

Even if it is a self-indulgence, however, if Business New Zealand thought it was worth putting some money on the table here, it is puzzling to me that it didn’t want to turn up here in droves and make the business point of view. Imagine the different tone here if out of 480 241 had been business owners and executives. A short speech from Simon Carlaw plus some workshop presentations is no substitute for footsoldiers on the ground. A demand-side revolution led by the private sector would start to convince me this country is worth bothering about, that it is not just subsiding genteelly into an R&R world heritage park.

What a difference it would make if all businesses took up Fonterra’s mission, as John Wilson has just put it: “to be the preferred employer of the best and brightest”. Competing for the best and brightest would do a lot for companies’ ability to compete for the world’s customers. Forget groans about poaching and free-riding; everyone gains, even if you train someone else’s top workforce — the poachers eventually would need to do their own gamekeeping if they are to hold their more competitive places.

Look at the counterfactuals, a number of which have been on show in the workshops here. Training can and does liberate people, deepen their lives and experience. And it can flow through to the kids — the kids we need to save from the scrapheap to which large numbers of them right now are being consigned by their parents and the system. Heinz-Wattie’s certificate system has not only made the recipients better off. It has got them making sure their kids go to school.

That is raising aspirations where there were none. That is our salvation.

So if there is an overarching challenge at the end of this conference to go with the many points of detail offered by an excellent range of speakers for mulling over and responding to it is this: how to get individuals and companies seriously serious, urgently urgent about lifting demand for learning so we can address John Blakey’s challenge to learn faster than change.

I think that phrase is gibberish. How can you learn something that hasn’t happened yet? It is another glib phrase to sell what Chris Lloyd aptly called management “novels” sold in airport bookshops.

But the point IN the phrase is anything but meaningless. We should at least be running hard up behind change. I don’t yet see that urgency around me in this country. I see, as John Blakey did, a lot of government focus on structure and strategy which is better than bad structure and no strategy but is not the future on its own.

The short point is this: governments need votes; it is business that needs profits; and profits need workers and managers of high quality. Only demand-led learning will make such people. And that requires a big shift of attitude yet.

Steve Maharey, who likes high-sounding catchphrases, enjoined you yesterday to be the “shock troops of the future”. Good luck.