The Government is spending $40 million to improve the digital technology skills of school students, but employers say it is a lack of 'soft skills' such as teamwork, self-management and decision-making that makes many young New Zealanders unready for work.
One rapidly expanding programme is focusing on those skills, in the hope of cutting the number of young people not in employment, education or training (NEETs).
The Youth Employability Programme (YEP) started three years ago working with five Auckland schools, but this year it will train 836 students in Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Porirua, Taranaki, Taupo, and Wairarapa, as well as Auckland.
Students enrolled take part in 18 employment skills workshops, do 20 hours of voluntary work and 80 hours of work experience before being presented with a "license to work" certificate to show prospective employers.
It is run by COMET Auckland (formerly the City of Manukau Education Trust) with a steering group that includes the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development Limited (ATEED), SkyCity, the Ministry of Education, Te Puni Kōkiri, NZQA, and the Ministry of Social Development.
YEP skills manager Shirley Johnson said employers surveyed by the EMA ranked qualifications and relevant subject choices of school leavers well below work experience and good soft skills such as teamwork, communication skills, willingness to learn and resilience.
The most recent EMA survey of employers found only one percent were 'very satisfied' and 13 percent 'satisfied' with the work readiness of school leavers - compared to 40 percent describing themselves as either 'dissatisfied' or 'very dissatisfied'.
NEET rate not a good look with record high migration
This is a problem for a Government that frequently has to defend why work visas are issued for low or semi-skilled migrants when there are 86,000 15 to 24 year olds not in employment, education or training - up 4,000 from a year ago.
It has jumped between blaming drug use, and poor literacy and work skills (with Prime Minister Bill English saying last year that some young kiwi men were "pretty damn hopeless") to arguing that many of those nearly 90,000 NEETs were caring for family members, "taking some time off" or "having some fun", in the words of Paul Goldsmith, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment.
The Government's own Youth Service has failed to make a dent in the numbers.
A Treasury impact report on the service found no evidence of "positive effects on young people's likelihood of being NEET beyond the period of programme participation", nor any evidence of improved employment rates.
English, speaking at a post-Cabinet press conference last month, said it was "proving to be quite a challenge" to stop young people opting out of the Youth Service scheme.
"We are making a more determined, more focused, more sophisticated effort on this than has ever been the case and it is turning out to be quite challenging," English said.
"They have pretty low level of trust in government agencies. Just connecting with these young people and staying connected with them long enough to change their track is challenging.
"The young people who aren’t doing the apprenticeships, who aren't at work, have quite a range of issues, some of which are quite complex. And all of them need quite a lot of support just to get to the start line."
Focusing on the soft skills for work readiness
Hoping to provide that support, and catch young people before they swell the number of NEETs, the YEP programme focuses on improving attitude, communication skills, teamwork, self-management, willingness to learn, thinking skills and resilience.
"Underneath each of those are four or five behaviours which employers are saying 'these are the behaviours that we would need to be seeing a young person displaying'," said Johnson.
"The three things that across the board that young people had the biggest challenges in were self-management, thinking skills and resilience, so right across the board they were the areas that young people need the support in," she said.
"Thinking skills was the area in which young people started at the lowest, in fact had the biggest level of development but it was still the lowest level of capability at the end. The four behaviours [under that] are: identifies and assesses options before making a decision; recognises problems and uses initiative to find solutions; thinks about consequences before they act; and recognises when they need to seek advice.
"You would think that within the school system thinking skills would be something that young people would do all the time. All of these capabilities are actually within the school system, but what we have found is that for many young people they need to be made very explicit in order that young people can make sense of them. They need to be developed in a very intentional way and a very sequential way."
"Schools haven't had a model they can follow so they have had to try and make things up. What we needed is something that really codified the world of work and young people have said to us that when they knew exactly what it was that they needed to do that it has just helped them so much. Because when people tell them they need a good attitude, what does that actually mean?"
The programme has mostly been offered to selected students in years 11 and 12, although Johnson says in Taupo a version for students in their first two years at high school is being rolled out. Southern Cross College in Mangere is considering offering it to their entire year 12, she said. A few organisations working with NEETs are using it, and in Gisborne and Taupo it is linking up with the Youth Service scheme.
Learning from mistakes instead of losing a job
Newsroom spoke to a hotel housekeeping supervisor who was frank about the challenges of working with two YEP students on work experience, despite the support and training they were receiving through the scheme.
"One of the girls came for a day and the next day she didn't come. And then we had a formal meeting with her and the teacher and a support person and she just didn't want to do it. It was really a pity because her first day the other girls were 'she was really amazing, she knew what to do and she wasn't one that stood back' and she seemed willing to learn, so I was quite shocked by that, but I got the vibe that it didn't really matter what work experience she was doing, she just wasn't ready."
The other student completed their full 80 hours of work experience, but not without hiccups along the way, from an initial lack of enthusiasm and apparent disinterest to failing to turn up for shifts.
"She was really blasé about it at first and didn't take it seriously," the supervisor said. "Then I had her first assessment and I was really honest with her and said 'you don't seem enthusiastic and if I was your employer I would be worried because I would think you were not taking anything in'. And she took it on board and she changed.
"Then the next thing was .. she was supposed to work and didn't show and facebooked the person who was in charge and said she had something on, then didn't show up for any more shifts for that week.
"I said 'you can't do that. If you were rostered on and didn’t show up it would be really bad', so she learnt from that as well.
"It was actually really good having all these bad things happen. I thought it was really good because she learnt all the do's and don'ts, and in the next job she will do really well. I reckon it is really good. People say 'why do they have to do the whole 80 hours?', but you can see the change from when they first start to the end of the 80 hours, it is like a totally different person. They learn from it instead of losing their job."