Opinion: Labour has the mandate to think big and set lasting direction - will it have the courage to face the reality of technology change and fix the gaping hole in its Review of Vocational Education?
In 2016, the then National government opened three ICT Grad Schools - a new type of technology education designed to address an acute shortage of IT capabilities in the NZ economy. The plan was to build engagement between business and academia and enable mid-career graduates from all disciplines to add tech to their existing skillsets.
Fast forward to 2019 and SIGNAL ICT Grad school, a collaboration of five major higher education institutions in the South Island had been up and running for three years. In that time, it had established a portfolio of courses, built relationships with dozens of businesses and put many newly minted tech grads back into the market with hands tech experience in real world companies. It's initial funding period was drawing to an end, and, looking to the future, it commissioned a small research paper on how technology education might evolve to help the board shape SIGNAL for the next funding round.
I was fortunate to be invited to write it and in June 2020 we published "Horizons 2020: Trends in Technology Education".
It was well received as a worthwhile analysis of some powerful forces we face in a time of rapid technological change. Unfortunately by the time it was published its original purpose had entirety disappeared. Later in 2019 the (then Labour) Government announced that funding for the ICT Grad Schools would not be extended, and as a result SIGNAL will cease to exist at the end of 2020 - with similar fates befalling the equivalent initiatives in Auckland and Wellington.
In this data heavy, artificially intelligent, socially networked, internet of things world it's hard to argue our need for tech skills is shrinking - or that it will any time soon. Even without COVID related difficulties importing capability from offshore, there is still an acute global shortage of ICT skills, while in the meantime down in rural Mackenzie Country, the Tekapo pub conversation is turning to digital agriculture and data insight. Businesses everywhere are scrabbling to survive disruption and digitalize operations before a 20-something entrepreneur does it to them from behind a keyboard.
More positively, the weightlessness of software and data products seems tailor made for a tiny exporting nation at the far end of the supply chain - after all, there’s a reason we were the last decent size landmass on the planet to be infested by our particular brand of hairless ape. Being where we are, one might think that it makes total sense to double down on an industry whose products cost nothing to reproduce and can be magically teleported anywhere at the touch of a few buttons.
So if Government cancelled the ICT grad school programmme and wasted all that work and investment - not least the precious time of small, medium and large business spent building collaborations and setting themselves up to support grad school interns, there must be something better in the pipe, right? Sadly not.
In their place we have the seemingly Kafkaesque workforce development councils, a set of 6 groups charged with long term planning and development of tertiary vocational education. Obviously a theme as important as tech would merit strong presence though, right? Again (you guessed it) sadly not. While I appreciate the value of a good barber as much as the next geek, there is something faintly reminiscent of the Hitchhikers Guide to see tech landed in an 'odds and ends' group with hairdressers, gyms, flower sellers, horse racing operators and creative artists (misc). I must admit, it will be nice to hang out with the cool kids for a change.
Frankly it’s a bit of a shitshow, though to be fair the government could be excused for taking its eye off the ball for a few months. Nonetheless, a disaster far beyond INCIS proportions is taking shape as I write. Labour v2.0 needs to reprise some of the courage and flexibility of its COVID response, own the screw up and do something better before we sleepwalk into missed opportunity.
Over the next few weeks we will use the work we did on Horizons to explore these issues and some of the ways we might respond. Feel free to comment - or even tweet your MP and tell them to wake up.
Martyn Rivett is a Technology and Business Strategy Advisor living in the South Island of New Zealand. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
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