There is a new air of grim determination among tens of
thousands of qualification-focused, job-hungry tertiary
students beginning classes this week. But qualifications are
not the only measure of potential, writes Bruce Munro.
When Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment
Steven Joyce said students choosing subjects should remember
doctors earn three times as much as performing arts
graduates, 19-year-old Olivia Lynch said, ''Thank you.''
She did not say, ''How dare you?'' or ''Where are your
values?'' or ''What about my interests?''No, it was, ''Fair
enough. I want to know I haven't wasted several years and a
lot of money.''
It is a brave new world out there.
Since late last year there has been an avalanche of
statistics, quotes and interactive websites out of Wellington
urging young people to get more qualifications and choose
careers with bigger pay packets. It began with a report on
the tertiary education system released on December 6 by Mr
Joyce. He said the report showed for the first time the
majority of New Zealanders had tertiary qualifications.
This was a step in the right direction because people with a
bachelor's degree or higher earned on average 65% more than
those without qualifications, he said.
That equates to median hourly earnings of $27.81 for
graduates, compared with $16.88 for those with no educational
Signalling what was to come, Mr Joyce said the Government was
''committed to increasing achievement ... improving quality
and better matching education to the skills needed in the New
It was no surprise, therefore, when, on January 22, Mr Joyce
released figures detailing what New Zealand students earned
after studying different subjects and at different levels.
Five years after completing their studies, those with a
medical degree were earning about $110,000 a year, he said.
''This is nearly three times as much as a performing arts
graduate,'' Mr Joyce said.
Civil engineering graduates were also given a tick compared
with their language, literature, sport and recreation
compatriots - $67,653 a year as opposed to $32,473.''
This report will be useful for students of all ages
considering their career options,'' Mr Joyce said.
Prime Minister John Key then gave the barrow a push in his
Waitangi Day speech.''
Regardless of ethnicity, young people with higher educational
qualifications generally end up with better incomes through
their working lives,'' Mr Key said.
The next salvo was Occupation Outlook. Launched last week, it
is an online Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
report on the incomes, training fees and job prospects of 40
At a glance, young people and their parents can see, for
example, that prospective pilots and air traffic controllers
can expect high incomes to match the high fees they will pay
to become qualified, but that their job prospects are poor;
while budding automotive technicians and electricians will
pay low fees, get good incomes and have good job prospects;
and future accountants can expect high fees, high incomes and
excellent job prospects. Clicking on any occupation on the
list reveals the two-page report on which its summary is
And the campaign is not over, Mr Joyce says.
He will be asking government agencies to ''dig further into
the data'' and produce more information that will ''help
young people make more informed choices about their
It can all seem rather ''capitalist nanny state'' - a
high-handed attempt to keep young people off the dole, lured
to chase qualifications by dreams of big incomes rather than
But careers advisers, business representatives and young
people themselves say it is a largely reasonable and
responsible reaction to 21st-century realities.
Today, the skills gained at secondary school are rarely
sufficient on their own to gain employment, Phil O'Reilly
The Wellington-based chief executive of BusinessNZ, the
country's largest business advocacy group, says more
pervasive and cheaper technology, increasing job
specialisation and a globalised labour market have all made
tertiary qualifications vital for job-seekers.
''What was acceptable in terms of skills for a school leaver
10 years ago would mean they were much less likely to get a
job now,'' Mr O'Reilly says.
''And skill levels are increasing globally. So there are
plenty of well-qualified people competing for the job you
Careers adviser Glenys Ker says qualifications tell a
prospective employer more than just that the job-seeker has
''It also tells them you're capable of sticking at something
long-term and capable of a certain level of thinking,'' Mrs
Ker, of Dunedin-based CareerFit, says.
Add to that the fact employers swamped with job applications
often look primarily at qualifications to select a shortlist
for interviews, and that bit of paper becomes extremely
important, John Scandrett, chief executive of the Otago
Southland Employers Association, says.
It is a message that young people, whether by instinct or
constant parental and school reinforcement, seem to be taking
This week, Miss Lynch begins the second year of a double
degree at the University of Otago - a bachelor of commerce
(BCom) in marketing and economics and a bachelor of arts (BA)
She wishes she could drop the commerce, but does not feel she
Plenty of her friends are in the same boat.
For Miss Lynch, an ideal career would be in foreign affairs,
a competitive field of work.
''I would love to just major in politics, but that's not good
enough,'' Miss Lynch says.
''So I'm putting in some business papers because you don't
want to end up with just a BA.
''Among her wider friendship group of about 50 students, she
cannot think of any who are doing just an arts degree.
Although several wish they could.
''BA and LLB [law degree] or BA and BCom ... A lot are doing
a BCom because they think that's where the money is.
''It's so expensive, there's no point wasting it on interest
Miss Lynch has several friends who are studying finance,
accounting and surveying who do not really enjoy it, ''but
there's money at the end of it''.
Others she knows of are doing law degrees, not because they
want to practise law but because it will look good on their
She is taking nine papers this year rather than the normal
eight for a full-time course. It will be hard work,
particularly given that she also works part-time as a
waitress. But she hopes it will help show prospective
employers she can manage her time and work hard.
''People aren't sure whether jobs will be there, so they're
doing double majors to keep their options open.
''They want a good income, but the focus is on getting a good
job and not having to go back to working in a cafe.''
A note of warning about choosing, or promoting,
qualifications on the basis of potential income is sounded by
Alan Geare, of the Otago Business School at the university.
''That's a ludicrous way to choose,'' Prof Geare said.''
I'd hate to think we were training people to be doctors and
that they were doing it simply to earn more money, but that
their heart and soul was in performing arts.
''It is a point reinforced by Mrs Ker, who advises people to
study ''what you are genuinely interested in and good at''
because ''then you are likely to do well''.
While statistics clearly illustrate that higher
qualifications often lead to better employment opportunities
and bigger incomes, that is not the whole picture.
Employers may cull job applications based on qualifications,
but qualifications and potential are not synonymous - as the
statistics also reveal.
The top 5% of earners in New Zealand are pulling, on average,
$3214 per week, Statistics New Zealand says. That is 288%
higher than the average incomes of people with a bachelor's
degree or higher. And what qualifications do this
high-flying, top-earning group have? Well, 49.9% of them have
less than a bachelor's degree.
They knew their potential, or were driven by a passion, and
they went for it - qualifications be damned.
We should celebrate those distinctive individuals and their
successes, but they will become fewer and further apart, Mr
It is so much harder these days to get your foot on the first
rung without qualifications, he says.
''If I was a young person thinking of taking that risk -
thinking I'm going to go out and be a Graeme Hart or Richard
Branson - I think it would be a poor choice,'' Mr O'Reilly
''I'd say get your qualification first, then pursue it, so
you've got the qualification to fall back on.''
Which is exactly how Jono Aldridge did not do it.
Mr Aldridge left high school at the end of 1998 without doing
Now he could comfortably retire in four years' time - when he
Growing up in Timaru with his parents and three siblings in a
house full of computers, Mr Aldridge says he was never
particularly interested in traditional learning.
After leaving school, he also dropped out of a polytechnic
computing course, went on the dole and did seasonal potato
His real passion at that time was buying, doing up and
After moving to Dunedin in 2002, he worked at Anngow Motors
cleaning vehicles, before getting a job at Otago Polytechnic
providing IT phone support to students and staff.
In eight years at the polytech, he has moved up through the
ranks to become a systems engineer and now a systems
architect, helping the organisation get the technology it
needs to pursue its goals.
In 2006, Mr Aldridge and his wife bought their first home - a
former state house which they spent 18 months completely
''Then we sat back,'' he said.
''But we found ourselves going to cafes and wasting money. We
So they put tenants in that house and bought another one to
Today, they live on a rural lifestyle block and have seven
investment properties including two blocks of flats.
The lack of qualifications have never been a problem, Mr
''All my colleagues at polytech have degrees ... When I used
to fill out forms, they asked for qualifications and it
bothered me a little that I didn't have anything to put in
''After a while it didn't really bother me any more. I knew I
was capable. I worked out I was a little bit different and I
was pleased to be different.''
When it came to approaching banks for money, ''making sure
the deals stack up'' and ''selling it to them'' were the key
His schooling experience left him feeling ''a bit of an
under-achiever''. But his parents' support, his own passion
to succeed and the opportunities offered by the polytech all
combined to show him his potential.
''The more you do something, and see you can do it, the more
confident you get in your abilities,'' he says.
In the past year, Mr Aldridge has started working towards a
bachelor of applied management degree through Otago
Polytechnic's New Zealand Centre for Assessment of Prior
The qualification is to ''prove to myself I can do it'' and
to ''make my dad proud''.
''Also, I understand that if the worst came to the worst and
I had to apply for a job, having a degree would help put me
to the front of the list so I could get an interview and sell
myself,'' he said.
Not that Mr Aldridge is planning to do that.
His goal was to retire at 35. While that is still possible,
he has decided he would quickly tire of playing golf all day.
Instead, he plans to use the passive income from his property
investments to free up his time to focus on other
''It's worked out quite well. And it will only get better as
time goes on.''