Valuing Young People in the Work Place

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs

Good evening, and thank you for the invitation to speak to you tonight.

You've asked me to talk about an exciting topic - that young people are a valuable asset in any work place. I agree, they are. And that includes Parliament too. If a business or project is to succeed, it has to be vibrant and forward looking, open to change. People must be prepared to re-evaluate how things can be done better. One of the benefits of employing young people is that they are in a unique position to offer a fresh perspective. Often they are unafraid to tell others what they think and that is extremely healthy.

I'm sure you've all heard the quote from Oscar Wilde, "I'm not young enough to know everything".

I trust that doesn't mean we get less intelligent as we get older, but way back in the 1850's, Oscar Wilde was telling us that we need to bust our paradigms if we are going to learn from others and find a new way forward.

Another often quoted person is Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher. He said, " The wish to preserve the past rather than the hope of creating the future dominates the minds of those who control the teaching of the young".

I think these two quotes demonstrate to us exactly why we need to value our young people and ensure that we have equipped them with the skills needed to work and learn in our fast moving world.

I have no doubt that the object of our compulsory education system should be to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. Can I say as an aside here, that as well as valuing children and young people we must also value their teachers. That is why the Government is committed to implementing a unified pay scale for primary and secondary teachers. Learning doesn't stop when people leave school - in fact it is just beginning. Most of all, young people need to learn how to learn.

I'd like to raise with you tonight some issues surrounding young people, work and education. I'll start with the general perception that I think New Zealanders have of young people, before moving on to the Government's new employment policy, finally I'd like to focus on the role that industry and individuals must play in education.

General perception of young people
One of the things that concerns me is that many older people tend to be negative in their attitudes towards young people. And I'm sure that doesn't help young people when applying for jobs.

Combating stereotypes is always difficult - a bit like being a candidate at election time, given that politicians are the least admired profession!

Most weeks we find stories in the media about youth. The stories we read are rarely about celebrating success, showing positive role models or telling us about the great things that young people are getting up to.

Although news stories often depict youth as alienated slackers, most young people wouldn't recognise themselves in the downbeat stories, because most are excited about the future and want to play a part in it.

In fact, on most measurement scales, today's youth are actually better off than their parents were a quarter of a century ago. They are less likely to drink or smoke, less likely to drive drunk, less likely to die at an early age, and more likely to stay longer in education and gain a qualification.

Recent figures from the Employment Service are encouraging for young people. The age profile of the unemployment register is continuing to rise - that means that there are fewer young people as a percentage of the total unemployed. The proportion of New Zealand Employment Service clients aged under 20 and those aged 20 -29 years has fallen by 1% since August 1996.

That's a good start. Unfortunately we have become used to young people being disproportionately represented in our unemployment statistics - and we have to do something about it. What chance have we of improving our country if the first thing that a young person faces after leaving school is the dole?

My colleague, Peter McCardle - the Minister of Employment, has been working hard to make a difference for young New Zealanders in this regard.

Despite the plethora of employment programmes and interventions that have been developed and introduced in the last 10 or 12 years, there has been an undeniable explosion in the number of long-term job seekers. In 1984 approximately 12,000 job seekers of the 74,000 on the register were out of work for longer than 6 months. Six years later, that proportion had jumped by 600%, and today we have nearly 70,000 long-term job seekers in this country.

There is simply nothing worse than seeing the enthusiasm of a young job seeker gradually wane. It comes as no surprise that after 20 or 30 rejections they just can't be bothered looking any further.

Today we have a large number of job seekers who have given up their search for work. Not only does long-term unemployment involve a loss of skills, dignity and motivation, but it involves the loss of a work ethic: something that could be described as a fundamental part of defining the human character.

For this reason, one of the Government's fundamental employment policy objectives is to maximise the number of job seekers in appropriate part-time community work or training while they are registered unemployed and receiving income support.

Peter McCardle has said that outcomes, not activities, will become the focus of our employment policy. The success of the activities we undertake will be measured by the results we achieve in reducing long-term unemployment.

This year will see the opportunity for a more flexible and targeted approach to the way resources are allocated to address the specific needs of job seekers. If one type of intervention proves successful in achieving a reduction in long-term unemployment, there will be much greater flexibility to move additional resources into supporting that activity if that is appropriate. This reinforces the concept that it should be the bigger outcomes that drive the activities, not the activities themselves.

To support this new focus on outcomes, it is proposed that the services to assist job seekers with their job search, training and income support needs integrated.

This will see the replacement of the Unemployment Benefit with a Community Wage and Training Allowance.

The 1997/98 budget for Vote: Employment allows us to significantly increase the number of job seekers involved in community work this year.

Some have suggested that the Community Wage and Training Allowance could be a punitive measure. That is totally unfounded. This change seeks to encourage job seekers by keeping them connected to the workforce, contributing to their community and maintaining their energy, dignity and skills. And in my experience, most job seekers want to work. It is absolutely essential that the introduction of community work for unemployed job seekers in our communities does not see the displacement of the paid workforce. There is a vast range of work to be done in our communities that would not otherwise be done, and would not be work carried out by the regular workforce. I heard of a recent example where the Upper Hutt Employment Trust has employed around 750 long-term job seekers in constructive community work, with no displacement occurring in other areas.

Another key aspect of the Community Work and Training initiative is that the part-time work or training must be suited to the job seeker. No job seeker will be asked to participate in part-time community work or training that is not appropriate to their capabilities, suitable to their skills, or likely to enhance their ability to secure paid work.

So, while receiving a benefit, people will now be working, learning and improving their skills to ensure that they are able to play a constructive part in our communities.

One example of success in this area is the Conservation Corps programme. The Ministry of Youth Affairs is responsible for administering the Conservation and Youth Service Corps. These programmes focus on conservation, education, community service and challenging recreation. They offer young people the opportunity to develop valuable work skills and increase their qualifications, self esteem, and confidence, while also contributing to the community.

They are not just about employment outcomes however, they focus on youth development and perhaps that's why they're so successful.

They are funded by the Ministry and run by a variety of youth and training organisations throughout the country and in 1996, up to 80% of participants moved on to education/training or employment within six months of completing their course. That makes Conservation Corps one of the most successful government funded targeted employment initiatives.

I would now like to touch briefly on the issue of education and training.

George Bernard Shaw once said that education was too important to be left solely to educationists. I couldn't agree more, that's why we all need to be involved - individuals, parents, families, industry and the community. There is always something to learn - but we must firstly make sure that we are able to use it, and secondly that our effort gets recognised.

New Zealand has introduced major reforms in the area of education and training to meet the increased demand for skilled workers. If New Zealand is to compete as a high skill, high wage economy we have to continue investing in training and education. We need to think of training and education as investments, rather than costs. We also need to develop a 'learning culture' in which school is the first step in a lifelong journey.

When you talk to people from successful industries and enterprises about their future, they all stress the need for a multi-skilled, adaptable workforce. This means giving people a core of skills that they can build on as required throughout their working lives. In today's - and more importantly, tomorrow's - work environment, a worker may have to change directions many times in their working life.

I have no doubt that well-structured partnerships between schools and enterprise go a long way towards developing a learning culture - not to mention a work culture - and act for the benefit of both. And here I see a place for partnerships that are not simply training arrangements.

One of the issues affecting New Zealand's competitiveness as we enter the new Millennium will be whether we have enough people with the right skills in the various sectors of the economy, particularly the export sector. We've all heard - perhaps had - the argument that we have too many lawyers and too few engineers.

One young New Zealander who has clearly demonstrated he has the right skills to literally leap into the new millennium is 14 year old Nicholas Johnson who has designed a computer programme that will allow older PCs to work after 31st December 1999.

Nicholas's work has shown up many of the big companies who have been trying to find a solution to this problem for the last few years. His youthfulness has allowed him to look at the problem without the baggage that designers at Microsoft or IBM might have. Now, many people with pre-486 computers will be able to keep using their PC well into the new millennium - patent is pending!

Value of the Big OE and youth responsibility
We must ensure that we are training people to do jobs that are available and fit the needs of the market. We must also ensure that people have an education that is diverse enough for them to change direction when necessary.

I think the key to that is ensuring that our young people are not only street-wise, but they are job-wise, learning-wise and that they have a set of life skills that enable them to operate in the diverse working and learning environment that we now live in.

A recent study by the Auckland Business School confirmed what many New Zealanders have always thought to be true. The study showed that the big OE - the overseas experience - helps people to gain competitive advantage.

Those who embarked on OE were shown to have become more personally responsible for themselves and their careers. As our society becomes more open and part of the global community, the qualities developed during OE are more and more relevant in the workplace.

Young people need to be able to improvise, be flexible, self-reliant, enterprising and mobile. They need to be international. Those are exactly the qualities that can be got from an OE.

An interesting finding of the study was that rather than the OE pushing someone into employment, they were more likely to become self-employed.

Perhaps we should be encouraging more OE?

So, to conclude tonight, I'd like to say that young people definitely are a valuable asset - not only in the workplace, but in the family and in our communities.

I would challenge businesses, employers and organisations to look more closely at what they do, and ask themselves whether they really value the young people they are involved with. We should all be prepared to take a managed risk - you never know, your organisation might have another Nicholas Johnson lurking behind the scenes, ready to make a big difference to the way you do things.

We must all make an effort to harness the unique abilities that we have, and we must all ensure that we continue to learn after we leave school, polytech or university. As I said earlier, learning doesn't stop when people leave school - it is just starting. Industry has already made positive steps towards encouraging that, but I think there is still a long way to go.

If we are to get anywhere, we must not only educate the young, but the older generations too, and ensure that everyone is aware of the potential that each of us have.

If we can all make an effort to change our perceptions - in education, work, politics, the media and in our communities, then I think that together we will achieve a lot.