Graduates frustrated at lack of jobs
VOCATION FRUSTRATION: From top left to bottom right, nurse Briana Forman, early childhood teacher Brent Amer, pilot Reuben Bhatt and photographer Ruth Hollinsworth.
On graduation day, Reuben Bhatt posed in a trainer aircraft giving the big thumbs up. The worst, he figured, was over. "I actually thought the hardest thing would be to finish university." He had no idea.
Bhatt, 23, finished his three-year aviation degree, complete with $115,000 loan, in November 2011. For six months he applied for pilot jobs in New Zealand. They all wanted more experience, so he tried Australia. Same story, but with 6 per cent interest on his student loan.
"I had one of two options - stay in New Zealand and go on the benefit, or look for work in Australia. You penalise me by charging me interest when I leave the country, because there's no hope of me getting a job here. So I was really mad."
Bhatt returned to Rotorua in July, reasoning, "I didn't slave three years at university to work in a bar in Cairns." His only avenue now is to join his classmates in low-paying flying instructor jobs, pumping out more novice pilots. Despite his situation, Bhatt would do flight training over again because he really wants to be a pilot, although he might do a shorter course instead of the degree. "I just wish they had given us more information."
It's a common theme among the struggling graduates of vocational courses.
Principals are reporting the toughest teaching job market in a generation, one in four nurses were still jobless almost six months after graduating, photography graduates are taking photos for free to get noticed in a saturated market, and 200 journalists a year are being churned out into an industry facing a global crisis.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's new Occupation Outlook report provides comprehensive job prospect profiles by career. Among the least promising options it identifies are pilots, journalists and photographers. Not to mention film students, whose numbers rocketed from 540 in 2005 to 850 in 2010.
We are clearly training too many students in careers with limited job prospects. But whose responsibility should it be to tailor trainee numbers to available work?
While the recession has undoubtedly reduced job availability, with teacher turnover at a 10-year low in 2010, it's hard to believe that workforce planning can be so wrong that we've lurched from a teacher shortage to a major oversupply in just two years.
Both the nursing and teaching unions say there's not enough ministry planning to ensure the right number, and the right mix, of teachers and nurses.
The Education Ministry says it monitors supply and demand, but it isn't its job to regulate trainee numbers. Health Workforce New Zealand says it is "in regular contact with nurse training providers about planning for future health workforce needs" and doesn't believe there's a surfeit of nursing graduates.
But what about the responsibilities of the polytechs and universities?
Massey University offers pilot training, journalism, photography, nursing and teaching qualifications. Vice chancellor Steve Maharey makes the point that universities aren't, and shouldn't be, just job factories. And any vocational course restrictions based on job opportunities would prevent people from learning skills applicable to other jobs. However, he says Massey does care whether its vocational training graduates get related jobs.
Students, he says, should choose where they study based on reputation and success. But that relies on accurate information about where graduates end up. And that's not easy to find, especially since the 2008 axing of the nationwide graduate destination survey.
On the face of it, Massey's statistics are impressive: jobs for 93 per cent of nursing graduates and 94 per cent of bachelor of teaching grads. But those figures are based on surveys with 60 per cent and 47 per cent respective return rates, meaning half of all Massey teaching graduates and 40 per cent of nursing graduates remain unaccounted for.
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce says the Government is working on more robust ways to report graduate success. He acknowledges that successive governments have shied away from telling students what they can study, based on job opportunities, except in the most expensive careers such as medicine and veterinary science.
And he's still sceptical in the case of teachers and nurses, because with forecasts of future shortages, the long-term prospects for those graduates are good.
"When you have applied degrees then, yes, you want to try to match the market. We have been underproducing engineers for years and years, underproducing ICT graduates, underproducing people with agricultural science degrees. We are definitely oversupplying photographers, actors and a range of other occupations like that. I just think that nursing and education is more of a short-term, two- to three-year issue . . . They're a problem right now, but the far bigger problems are the ones where there just isn't the demand for their skills."
Those degrees with poor long-term prospects are likely to be affected by Joyce's plans to make job success a performance indicator for tertiary education providers and to review fees subsidies to ensure they're not perversely promoting degrees with poor prospects.
The average subsidy is about 70 per cent. But it's impossible to calculate the cost to the Government of people taking vocational degrees but not getting a job in that career, partly because just having a degree still improves your job prospects.
But the cost to individuals is clear - heartbreak, hardship and debt.
It will never be possible to exactly match job training with graduate job opportunities, but better efforts could be made. As one eight-month-unemployed nursing graduate put it, you wouldn't train a cop or an army recruit, then tell them there was no job for them.
As for public-sector jobs with predicted future shortages, such as teachers and nurses, perhaps the problem is not trainee numbers, but funding for graduate jobs.
Briana Forman sounds like another brain-drain statistic, living in Australia and earning about $15,000 more than her fellow Kiwi new graduate nurses. The difference is the 22-year-old wants nothing more than to come home.
Ever since volunteering at an Upper Hutt rest home at 15, Forman has wanted to be a nurse. So when she graduated from Massey's nursing school last year she should have been elated. Instead, she cried, having missed out on a Wellington place in the Nursing Entry to Practice (NETP) programme. "I was heartbroken; it was like where to now?"
She didn't want to wait until the second NETP round, "twiddling my thumbs and not using my skills". So she applied to doctors' surgeries. They all wanted two to three years' post-grad experience.
Reluctantly, Forman tried a Canberra hospital near where her father lives. She moved in February and is now part of the Australian new graduate programme. She's loving it and the pay is better, although she's been charged about $1600 interest on her $26,000 loan. But she'd still like to return. "My hope would be that in February I could come home, but it's not looking promising."
Forman is far from alone. A Nursing Council call for struggling graduates' stories sparked responses from 10 new graduates in less than 24 hours, all either without work or who had found jobs outside the NETP with little support. "I feel that the certificate is not worth the paper it's written on and would advise all nursing students to consider very carefully before proceeding and getting into debt," one wrote.
In 2011/12, 1433 Kiwis graduated with a nursing degree. The first report into NETP placements found 56 per cent of the new graduates who applied got jobs in the first round. By March that had increased to 75 per cent. But the report also revealed vast disparities in success rates across the various training institutions. For example, 81 per cent of Christchurch Polytechnic graduates got jobs in the first NETP round, compared with just 40 per cent of Unitec graduates. But the report points out that the main influence is the availability of DHB jobs in the institute's region, rather than training quality.
Unitec head of nursing Sue Gasquoine notes the statistics do not include graduates employed in other areas, such as rest homes. By March, 65 per cent of Unitec graduates had jobs. But that still means 35 out of 100 graduates have a nursing degree and nowhere to use it.
So are we training too many nurses, and is enough work done to ensure trainee places match job opportunities?
Training is already restricted to an extent by the numbers of practical placements available. Gasquoine says 800 hopefuls applied for her 155 places last year.
And Health Workforce New Zealand says we will need to train more nurses by 2015 to care for an ageing population. But they won't stay in the profession if they can't get work, and there's a limited window to achieve that. New nurses are eligible for the NETP programme only for up to 12 months after graduating.
Some have accused overseas nurses of stealing Kiwi jobs - 1232 internationally qualified nurses were registered here in 2011/12. But Nurses Organisation associate professional services manager Hilary Graham-Smith says international nurses fill specific shortage areas. She says New Zealand lacks a strong health workforce plan to ensure we have enough nurses and that they're working in the right areas.
A critical question is how to get more graduates interested in working in areas such as the burgeoning rest home sector, where pay and support are generally lower, she says.
In an age of high-quality affordable digital cameras anyone can be a photographer, right? That, it seems, is part of the problem for the 200-odd students emerging with photography qualifications every year.
Having a degree, with first-class honours, at least adds credibility when touting for work, says Ruth Hollinsworth, who completed her bachelor of design majoring in photography at Massey University in Wellington last year.
The 27-year-old worked for two years as a photo shop lab technician before studying first a practical photographic diploma, then the degree.
Five years and a $35,000 loan later she's back working in a photo shop in Auckland, trying to launch herself as a photographer in a crowded market. That's progress - earlier she worked as a gym receptionist.
She's also doing an unpaid internship photographing Auckland Museum's textile collection, and shooting free jobs on the agreement she can use the images for her portfolio. But it's still a long road ahead. "Sometimes I joke that I wish I'd trained in something a bit more relevant. But to me there is nothing greater than taking a great photo for someone and seeing their expression when you hand it over."
Despite the crowded market, she's hesitant to endorse restricting placements according to job opportunities. "I would hate for anyone to be put off what they really want to study just because of limitations on the job market. Photography is tough but if you really work at it you can do it."
The flood of new graduates trying to get established, and selling their services cheaply or for free can also undermine existing photographers.
New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography president Mike Langford says he's busier than ever, but he knows a photographer of 20 years who has given up to become a primary school teacher because he can no longer make a living from it, and a relatively recent graduate who has quit to become an undertaker.
However, he believes trainee numbers have fallen from their 2008/09 peak, when an "education industry" grew to soak up rising demand, with photography schools extending diploma courses to degrees. And he figures training creative thinkers is good for society, whether or not they work as career photographers.
"It was hard 30 years ago, really not much has changed. If you're good, you'll make it and to make it you've got to be committed. And not many of the young kids these days are committed."
THE TEACHER WHO'S A CLEANER
When the school bell rings at Wellington's Karori West Normal School, Brent Amer heads to the cleaning cupboard to pick up his vacuum cleaner and mop.
The 37-year-old got a full-fees scholarship from government agency Teach New Zealand for three of the four years of the combined early childhood teaching and arts degree he completed at Victoria University in November.
But instead of using those taxpayer-funded skills to teach young children, Amer is working 30 hours a week as a teacher aide and 25 hours a week as a cleaner.
"I was amped at finishing my degree, thinking 'Right, I'm going to get out there'. But it just hasn't happened."
Amer got into education to be "a person of influence" and chose Victoria's degree course because it was so comprehensive. Now he wonders if the qualification, and its passport to higher pay, is counting against him in the job market.
He's been shortlisted for several early childhood jobs, but remains a slave to the Education Gazette alerts on his phone, advertising about "one measly little job" vacancy a fortnight.
His particular bugbear is one-year diplomas, which he fears are turning teaching into a fallback profession for graduates who don't know what else to do.
"Universities are in competition with each other. They can easily fill these courses. It's flooded the market big-time."
Amer's flatmate did a post-graduate early childhood diploma. She's applied for more than 100 jobs and hardly received a reply. "It's pretty tough out there, " he says.
That's an understatement. In 2012, 7291 students completed teaching qualifications, compared with 5898 in 2010. The number of students completing primary teaching qualifications increased 48 per cent from 852 to 1265. A Waikato principal last month called it the toughest job market in a generation, after research found there were 660 teaching graduates in the region vying for 35 vacancies.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Occupation Outlook report puts teaching job prospects as fair, but that is under review.
The Education Ministry couldn't say what proportion of new teaching graduates get jobs within their first year, but only two out of five have permanent fulltime jobs three years after graduating. The ministry says that, since the teacher oversupply surfaced during the past three years, it has intervened by removing contracts to recruit overseas teachers and taking teaching off the immigration skills shortage list.
However, it eschews responsibility for ensuring the numbers of teachers being trained matches job opportunities. "The ministry monitors the workforce and takes steps to limit supply of teachers from overseas and in other areas where it can. However, it does not and never has had the role of directly influencing demand."
But Paul Goulter, national secretary of teachers union NZEI, says "it's very difficult to discern any workforce planning on both the supply side and the demand side".
Education Ministry figures show there will be 44,500 more primary school pupils by 2019, requiring an extra 1150 teachers by 2016. But the graduates who could help fill that shortage are leaving because they can't get jobs, Goulter says. "They're throwing thousands of badly needed teachers on to a scrap heap, or resourcing teaching systems overseas."
Massey University Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey is bullish about the prospects for graduates of the university's aviation degree: "One-hundred per cent of them get a job."
But as far as Your Weekend could determine, of the 13 pilots who graduated with Reuben Bhatt, none are working in New Zealand as cadet pilots for a commercial airline. One is a student pilot for Chinese airline Shenzhen, one is a pilot trainee at Thai Airways and another is flying for Susi Air in Indonesia. Of those in New Zealand, one is a flying instructor at a private flight school and three are back at Massey training more novice pilots.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's occupation outlook for pilots and air traffic controllers notes "very strong growth", with numbers completing diplomas soaring from 60 in 2009 to 210 in 2010. "Entry for graduates is difficult and initial income is low in relation to the cost of training," it advises.
Massey graduate Sam Brown thinks his degree was a good investment, despite now working as a flight operations controller in Auckland after unexpectedly losing his medical clearance to fly.
Nonetheless, he believes New Zealand trains too many pilots, partly because graduates can't get experience in countries with a pilot shortage without paying interest on their massive loans. "That limits us to the New Zealand workforce, which generally won't accept pilots with low experience, or flying schools will only accept their own trainees. Many flying schools are flooding the market with pilots, mostly those with too few hours, meaning starting jobs are the most competitive."
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce admits pilot training has been an extreme example of a training-to-jobs mismatch, with pilots over- represented among loan defaulters. He argues Budget 2012 changes capping pilot students' borrowing have "closed the gate". However, that Budget also increased the tuition subsidy by 19.9 per cent, potentially increasing the incentive to provide pilot training.