Tertiary education is invaluable – despite what some companies say

by The Listener / 16 November, 2017
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They mean well, of course. But the 100-plus New Zealand companies that told prospective employees in an open letter that they don’t necessarily need a formal qualification may seriously mislead young people.

The companies, which include some of our biggest employers, may be happy to recruit and train the unqualified to cover a shortage of skilled workers, but there’s an irony here. These are the very companies run in the main by people with university degrees. Yet they’re trying to influence future workers into a course that could lock them into lower wages.

ASB Bank, Xero, Fonterra, Microsoft and Vector, among others, deserve credit for encouraging unqualified workers to come forward, to the extent that it gives new hope to those who consider themselves consigned to dull or low-paid work for lack of formal qualifications. On-the-job training can for some be just as productive as formal study.

But in general, attaining more qualifications gives young people wider and better employment options. And getting additional formal skills training is more likely to enhance an older worker’s further employment than not.

For many, and probably most, the chances of walking into a job with prospects and decent pay without documented skills are not high. Not every employer is willing or able to put time into on-the-job training and mentoring.

In information technology, where some youngsters are leaving school already equipped with desirable skill sets for some employers, taking such jobs could simply lock them into a dwindling realm of opportunity as IT and AI rapidly evolve.

Moreover, a degree is not the only qualification that students may miss out on by going straight into one of the companies behind this campaign. It’s no accident that the Government’s phasing-in of free tertiary education is being extended to apprenticeships and other technical qualifications. In many sectors, these may be an even better immediate pathway to a good career than a degree. The country is so short of tradespeople that no qualified sparky, plumber, chippy or brickie need be out of work. Hard to replace with technology, good tradies develop specialist knowledge, diagnostic and problem-solving abilities and creativity. A trade apprenticeship is one of the surest routes to a long career for a school-leaver, including the prospect of business ownership.

Similarly, seldom is a formal degree a waste of the graduate’s time. The Economist reported in 2015 that for US graduates, for whom university is generally fully user-pays, the cost of getting a degree yields an average return of 15% in eventual salary.

Even so, it’s not clear from such statistics that a higher-qualified workforce delivers commensurate productivity gains for the economy. The Economist noted that a trend towards lower scores for American graduates suggested the overall benefits of degrees might be declining.

The employer group’s agnosticism about the value of training should perhaps serve as a warning to our tertiary providers to reassess whether their courses are giving both students and prospective employers optimal value. Schools, too, have a role, given the disturbing statistic that 35-40% of building-industry apprentices don’t complete their courses – suggesting we need to do more to prepare young people for the realities of meeting deadlines and being assessed.

Yet this is the very time that some lobbyists have called for less-formal assessment at secondary school. To remove that pathway is not a kindness to kids, but the opposite. School qualifications are vital in not just enabling each student to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have acquired but also helping develop workplace discipline. In the wider world, young people will have to be self-starting and self-disciplined or eventually the system will let them fail. Performance and accountability underpin every field of human endeavour. Whether you are an All Black, bus driver, surgeon, early-childhood teacher or pilot, verifiable ability and achievement are important.

What traditional tertiary study can also do is serve to instil many of the 21st-century skills that the World Economic Forum stresses we’ll need most: critical thinking, social and cultural awareness, persistence, communication skills, collaboration, civic literacy and, importantly, leadership.

Examples abound. Australian Angela Mentis, the new Bank of New Zealand chief executive, wanted to work in her family business, running takeaways, cafes and corner stores. Yet her parents insisted she go to university first. What followed was a stellar banking career.

This editorial was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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