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The return of the apprenticeship

As the country emerges from alert level 2, and Auckland comes out of alert level 2.5, our thoughts are naturally turning to economic recovery. The New Zealand economy has taken a big hit from the pandemic and its time to look at mid to longer-term solutions, not just short-term fixes.

One area that requires specific thought is the challenge that will be faced by those in their late teens and early twenties. New entrants in the workforce will be responsible for paying off the COVID-related societal debt burden, and they can expect increased rates of taxation across all income tax thresholds in the future. And, this will come on top of student loan debt if they decide to pursue higher education.

The new economic burden will further disadvantage those from the most impoverished backgrounds who lack the means to pursue higher education. As we see it, the poorest in society face two main barriers to education; one is the cost of education in terms of fees, and the other is the cost of forsaken income.

For some people, this has always been a barrier; they can't afford not to earn, or only to earn a minimal income for a prolonged period. As a result, learning a trade has been a path to the middle class for many generations. And having a parent who is a tradie makes it easier to get a degree, and unsurprisingly having a parent with a degree helps the next generation to become a professional. It is tough to jump one of these generational steps. Some do it, and it is an exceptional achievement when they do. However, we can do better as a society.

The Classic Apprenticeship

It's easy to see why apprenticeships are back in vogue again internationally; they have a lot of advantages. It offers an "earn while you learn" framework that minimises debt and eliminates that three to four year period of your life when you are spending but not earning.

The other aspect that I think is slowly gaining traction is that skills are essential. When degrees were scarce, skills were plentiful, and promotion was often limited to those with academic qualifications. In the internet age, where tertiary education is bountiful, we can easily see the potential for that structure to invert, practical experience becoming a premium-learning how to do something taking over from learning about something. The trend towards online teaching and acquisition of qualifications, will in all likelihood increase demand for experience gained through practical skills.

Over the last few decades, we have seen that it's taking longer and longer to reach classic life milestones. The ubiquity of tertiary education and its subsequent costs must be playing some role in this.

The apprenticeship system will allow people to earn earlier, to make a useful contribution earlier and to be independent earlier.

Crucially, it means they can start being entrepreneurs earlier as well. Entrepreneurial skill is like any other skill, and it involves a lot of trial and error. Inevitably there are a lot of painful lessons along the way. Those lessons or failures should occur when people are young, so they have time to recover.

Technology Apprenticeships

Most apprenticeships include tutoring in the theory of the subject. If we take the "tech" area to be about mostly, but not limited to, programming of some kind. Then one thing we can be reasonably confident of is that the more they do, the better they will get, and there are insane online resources that already exist to support development.

It's an open secret that most tech work involves being paid to google for solutions. It's a mindset issue, rather than a knowledge set issue. The only knowledge aspect that matters is the knowledge that you have faced what appear to be impossible problems before and have overcome them, with perseverance. Over time, confidence in one's ability to find a solution increases. This is not really about intellect, it's about determination and the accrued rewards of satisfaction that can only be achieved through solving problems


It's up to the technology industry to decide. Do they want to reach down into the schools and scoop up that talent, those diamonds in the rough? The same approach is taken in the sporting arena by elite schools.

As Adam Grant says, "in job interviews and college admissions, we focus too much on what candidates have accomplished, and too little on what obstacles they've overcome." He goes on to say that "the accurate measure of people's potential is not the height of the peak they've reached, but how far they've climbed to get there".

It strikes me, that certain groups in society represent, are therefore an as yet untapped resource. For academic institutions, the challenge often comes down to identifying students who self-select out of the university applicant pool due to seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

A partnership between local tech players and established universities could fast track talent and facilitate upward mobility which is good for New Zealand.

What's in it for the tech world? A bigger employment pool.

What's in it for academia? Evolution for a business model that is under pressure.

What's in it for students? The resulting certificate will help students who earned it to get a job, partly because of the sponsoring technology giants' brand, and because of the certificate's practical value and how it will apply in today's real-world scenarios.

Leon Hudson recently returned to New Zealand after 12-years in Southeast Asia. Leon is a disciplined commercial leader who helps challenger brands to succeed internationally. 


Phill Smith  

Phill trained as a biologist spending 11 years at universities in New Zealand and Japan. Eventually managed to ply his self taught knowledge of computing into the position of IT manager at a media monitoring company where he met the co-author of this article. He has left the tech world to run his own importing business and now spends his free time writing python code to explore the role of sex in evolution so that you don't have to.



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