Piece of work

TRADING: Brad Jordan works at Convex Plastics, but he’s one of the few teenagers interested in working at a trade, his boss says.
TRADING: Brad Jordan works at Convex Plastics, but he’s one of the few teenagers interested in working at a trade, his boss says.

Aimie Cronin looks into how schools are preparing students for work. 

One in three young Maori school leavers are unemployed.

It's better if you're white, but not much.

Ministry of Education figures state that almost 6000 students from 2009-11 left school without an NCEA level 1 qualification.

James Wilson left school with level 3 in art, but not much else.

He sits with his mates on the grass in Garden Place in the middle of the day, head down, picking at the grass.

He is 16, but looks younger, because he's small. Skinny and short.

He makes up for it, though - as you do when you're skinny and short and you're trying to stamp your foot - by colouring his hair in a failed attempt to turn it blond. And wearing coloured skinny jeans with a clashing hat.

That's all pretty typical teen.

Wilson is striking, in that he looks straight into the face of the person he's talking to and keeps talking until what he's saying morphs from absolute clarity into some sort of urban slang that apparently exists on Hamilton's streets.

Boy's got spark.

He hasn't been in Hamilton long - moved here from Wellington to live with his older sister. But she's never home.

Forget school, he says, it's a waste of time.

"Half the stuff you learn, you don't need it later on . . . if I wanna be an artist, I don't need to know maths."

He wouldn't mind being an artist.

But that's not even in his sights right now. He's on a training course around the corner - something about sports retail. He's not really sure what it's all about.

James should hook up with Convex Plastics managing director Owen Embling. He would do well with a boss like Embling, who's soft-spoken and sincere.

"When I'm interviewing, I'm looking for a little bit of spark, a little bit of something extra, over and above. It can be bashed out at school - there's a lot of pressure and there are a lot of times you have to conform and fit the pathway school gives you."

He says he's not so interested in grades, but wants young people who can communicate and work well alongside others. And he wants to invest in young people, because they breathe life into his business, and because he cares.

"I hate to say it, but if you're 50 years old and unemployed, you're probably not such a big problem. But if you're 18 and unemployed, you are a big problem. You get issues with youth and communities with high unemployment."

At Convex, four colleagues sit in a room to discuss the issue of youth and school and jobs, and how the three match up, or don't.

One of the guys is fresh out of school. But there are not many other teenagers in the building because it's hard, they say, to get them interested in an industry that's lacking the glamour of web design, or the old-school pull of university.

And they're not prepared to put in the hard yards, says Gary Dillistone.

He's a print manager at Convex and has been working there for 25 years. He's a straight shooter. Sitting down to discuss young people and jobs with his colleagues, it's Dillistone who starts first. He has something to say.

He thinks young people have too many choices. That they too often go to university without a career in mind. That kids have never had it easier.

"If we put an advert in the paper for a young school leaver for an apprenticeship in printing in the past, we would have received 20 or 30 applicants. Now, if we do an advert on the internet through Seek, we only get one or two.

"We pay above minimum wage and if they do shift work, they get paid more again . . . we want to pick up school leavers to be the leaders of our business in the future, but we can't get those kids any more, because they don't see themselves working in a dirty area with ink and machines."

Brad Jordan has been an engineering apprentice at Convex since January.

His bosses say the 19-year-old has the grades, the work ethic, and the personality. They lucked out.

Jordan is confident and seems comfortable sitting in a room with his seniors. He's not afraid to pipe up and gets his point of view across.

He figured out he wanted to be an engineer at 16, and says he made an effort at school in the subjects that would help him get to his goal, and gave up on the ones that wouldn't.

"I don't think school prepared me for any of the hands-on things in the workshop, but I learnt a lot from the farm."

Many of Jordan's peers at school chose university over work, because they saw it as the easy option.

"Kids my age that leave school don't want to work straight away, because they feel like they're missing out with what their friends are doing, so that's why they choose uni. You can take time off at uni, but you can't do it when you're working."

Gallagher corporate services executive Margaret Comer agrees young people seem to be turned off by trades, and she wonders, like Dillistone, if it's because the industries lack the glamour or prestige of a university pathway.

"We are poorly provided in the trades in New Zealand. Trying to get electricians, engineers, people who work with their hands, is difficult.

"We're making the trades sound like a dirty word and they are not, they're very technically and specifically-focused roles, no worse or no better than doing a marketing degree. A marketing manager still needs his toilet fixed."

Comer has been in business for 28 years and has hired countless staff for all areas of the organisation.

She sees the ideal school leaver as "tidy, teeth cleaned, and face washed - often it's not - perhaps not jeans, but at least being clean and tidy. That is all we ask".

She thinks the role of school is to educate, the rest lies with family.

"Homes should make kids job-ready in terms of [knowing to] turn up on time . . . so much is pushed back to schools. I think it's an unreasonable expectation. However, if homes are not going to provide that, schools are the last resort.

"It is very important that kids leaving school are aware of the social and professional requirements of starting work. It's amazing how many people we get that simply don't know how to behave."

She believes schools' role, ultimately, is to educate.

"And to provide a learning environment that encourages individuals to be enquiring, to challenge the status quo, and become really good individuals in the workplace. I don't see it as their role to teach students how to wash their face."

Ana Martin, 16, and Dan e Botha, 17, would meet Margaret Comer's criteria.

From a distance, they look bored and sulky, hunched forward on the kids' chairs at the front of the library and half texting/half watching the toddler they are babysitting - Martin's nephew. But they come alive when spoken to and are articulate and confident. With clean faces.

Ana is a student at Fairfield College.

"I think it's an all right school. If you wanna learn, you learn. If you don't, you don't."

She does. She wants to study journalism and maybe accounting, and plans to stay at school till the end of year 13.

She wants a house and a family and it's important for her to be part of the workforce.

"Helping New Zealand is good, because I live here and I want the best for my children and future generations."

Dan e studies at home by correspondence. She says family stuff happened and she couldn't cope in school.

"I'm gonna do year 12 again next year and then finish year 13 and then go to some uni and study psychology.

"I love listening to people and helping them out. I've had counsellors and a psychologist, and just the way they help is cool, and I would like to do that."

They both agree English and maths are the most important subjects.

Says Dan e: "I know a few people . . . friends . . . who don't go to school any more and they can't read or write properly.

"It's pretty sad if you think about it. Like, they can't do paperwork. My friend only does physical work. He works with his dad in a factory . . . it doesn't look like he minds at all . . . he just . . . I dunno. It's sad. You're restricted from doing something you might want to do . . . it would suck."

They think school helps - a lot. Helps kids get the skills they think employers want. Reading, writing, communicating.

"If you weren't in school, you wouldn't have people who were willing to take the time to teach you what you should know, and school gives you that," says Ana.

If there were a way, Huntly College principal Tim Foy would keep kids in school until they learned everything they should know.

He's been at the college for eight years and all that time he's wished the students would leave when he says they're ready, not when they think they are.

Five per cent of students who leave the decile one school head directly to university (Hillcrest High School estimates 70 per cent of Year 13s will go to university next year). The vast majority are not interested in travelling overseas for a gap year, or OE straight after school - most want to find work locally and stay close to family.

The school-to-work transition programme Gateway is hugely important and highly effective, says Foy, as is the Trades Academy - anything to get students into work.

He says there has been recognition from the ministry that money needs to be spent on vocation-based courses that are aimed at kids finding work in trades ("NCEA is not the be-all and end-all, that's for sure"). He says money is being spent.

Another way to help these kids, he believes, is charter schools.

There are numerous dizzying ways charter schools could go wrong. But Foy thinks they're just the thing to help kids learn trades.

"We need to look outside our pool of currently existing teachers. I'd love to be able to bring in ex-chippies and say, ‘Impart your knowledge'.

"I am a fan of charter schools. There's a lot more flexibility around what you can do and it puts the student first."

While he said he could do with more funding and resources to help boost the support students receive before transitioning into the real world, Foy says some of the directions schools are taking are quite healthy.

There's hope.

In 2011, the Ministry of Education outlined six priorities to set up the direction of the country's education policy for the next five years.

The need to equip students with skills and qualifications, so they leave school ready for work, was central.

In its annual report late last month, the ministry sharpened its focus to three areas, one of which covers the ministry, the other two of which cover students:

■ Raising attainment for students who are Maori, Pacifica, from low socioeconomic backgrounds and special needs.

■ Ensuring the education system is a major contributor to economic prosperity.

Last month the new secretary of education, Lesley Longstone, controversially stated in the Ministry of Education's annual report that the system is underperforming for learners with social and economic challenges. That we can't call our education world-class until we do something about the kids at the bottom.

University of Waikato dean of education Roger Moltzen agrees too many students leave school and cannot participate in society, and he is glad it is an issue that is now out in the open, since everyone has a stake in raising the bar. "It's not just about schools, it's about social policy . . . what concerns me is, we say we've got an issue and it's teachers. It's a broader issue and we need to work together, there's got to be more widespread ownership.

"We've learnt that our schools have to acknowledge a greater diversity of backgrounds and to understand how to incorporate them into schools, so that all students have a sense of belonging.

"Many schools around New Zealand are taking that very seriously. They are reaching out to parents and asking how they can better engage with families. That might sound like ministry rhetoric, but it's a reality that we have to connect better with these students and their families."

Owen Embling at Convex has the last word. He hopes for something bigger for New Zealand students: That they'll learn not just to read and write, but also to dream.

"If kids could come up with a bit of a dream as to where they want to be, and schools taught them to follow their dream a little bit and say, Shit,I'd really like to be . . . and if they believed, they could get there.

"If that's something schools could do, I reckon that would be magic. Build up that dream, eh?"