Education’s objective and obsession with degrees

Chris Bishop. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Chris Bishop. Photo: Peter McIntosh
I preface this article by admitting it is a rant and is entirely my opinion and observation.

In my mind the objective of education is to set us on the path of our future. Unless you’re set on being a surgeon or going deep into science, your first choice out of high school is really about getting started on your journey — it’s not the destination.

Even if you choose a science or medical field, many practitioners end up in leadership or executive roles in the end — they don’t start there though.

Why then do we continue to have an obsession with bachelor’s degrees — bachelor of law, bachelor of commerce, bachelor of accounting, bachelor of arts? I’ve ranted about this before, but I’ll have another crack.

I had a coffee a few weeks ago with a second year law and business student. Her eyes lit up when I explained what we do and how that ties into the tech industry.

I asked why she chose those subjects; she said she told her careers adviser she wanted to do science or engineering but was talked out of them because they were ‘‘too narrow’’. A law and business degree would keep her options open.

Other examples of this situation are:

 • The former senior ranking air force member and now government representative, who has fought with his daughter’s high school to make sure they were representing engineering pathways, because they actively tried to persuade her into business studies because ‘‘there aren’t many women in the mechanical engineering sector’’.

 • The five year 13 students I interviewed for tech scholarships who all wanted to be game developers and had no concept that ‘‘tech’’ careers extended beyond the computer into bio-tech, clean energy, med-tech and cinematography to name a few.

 • An Engineering NZ survey of high school pupils which revealed the number 1 career choice is to be a social media influencer.

Recently we had an aerospace engineer visiting United Machinists, unfortunately her plane was cancelled (ironic) so she couldn’t make it in time to meet the children’s tour I’d organised.

I called the school to advise and suggested there was still heaps to cover through a tour, that I could show the students some really interesting medical, cinematography and aerospace components, how they’re made and the exceptional level of design, quality management, software and automation that goes into hi-tech manufacturing, finishing off with a discussion on potential career pathways and what study options there were to pursue them.

‘‘Oh no, our girls are only interested in space, they’re not into engineering or manufacturing; we’ll cancel’’.

The decision was beyond disappointing. How do you think stuff gets to space? It gets designed and made, that’s engineering and manufacturing.

Elon Musk is famous for Tesla and SpaceX. Anyone that’s followed Elon will know that his obsession is not in the design of the technology, but in creating highly repeatable, efficient and wherever possible automated manufacturing processes.

I could have told the counsellor that in aerospace companies as high as 85% of positions are technical roles suited to trade qualified graduates. Or that Sir Peter Beck, New Zealand’s space industry pioneer, is a fitter turner by trade.

But to be honest I’m a bit disillusioned and starting to lose my will. I don’t blame the schools, they’re absolutely inundated and working within the system they’ve been given.

According to Minister Chris Bishop at the post-Budget briefing event hosted by Business South in Dunedin two weeks ago, the current government has doubled down on education. At the event I asked Mr Bishop what was being done to join the dots across our school education system into tertiary study and future workforce planning.

I commented that literacy and math were great, but we need to go further and have a clear plan on how to join the dots into subject choices within STEM at high-school, like physics, that will lead to plugging the workforce gaps and developing the industries of the future.

I highlighted that as long as our schools have no standardised careers advice curriculum, as long as they lose funding when students leave at the end of year 12 to pursue vocational training and as long as schools are ranked based on their university entrance rates — they are actively penalised against building the pipeline of the advanced trades men and women we need to power our economy.

Add new immigration changes that severely impact our ability to recruit foreign trades qualified workers. Alongside zero pipelines of apprentices and a curriculum that is over 20 years old, it’s not great.

How are we supposed to build a hi-tech manufacturing industry in New Zealand with no manufacturing engineers? Or to build future infrastructure? Like hospitals for example.

It seems glaringly obvious that with 41% of our enrolled tertiary students in business, humanities and law studies, upwards of 25% of them leaving New Zealand (the highest graduate diaspora in the OECD), the highest ever level of net migration loss of New Zealand citizens and sudden changes to immigration policy to stop the flood of supposedly ‘‘low skilled’’ immigrants, that we have a huge problem.

We need to commercialise our inventions and we need more inventors. Invention doesn’t just come from universities, it comes from people on the tools — New Zealand’s ‘‘number 8 wire’’ culture was born from it.

Manufacturing engineering underpins future industries such as clean technology, medical devices, bio-technology and aerospace. All produce physical products that have to be manufactured, across them there are roles in planning, design, software, analytics, manufacturing, logistics and robotics — a plethora of roles that could all start from an apprenticeship.

Universally our advisory group agreed that trade qualified employees who go on to develop professional skills or undertake post-graduate study are the most valuable.

There is no fast ticket to the glam jobs.

But if there was, I would argue it would be an apprenticeship.

 - Sarah Ramsay is chief executive of United Machinists.