Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Youth Employment, Training and Education - NZ First Private Members' Bill Series Part 3

As I may have remarked several times before on this blog, one of my favourite MPs from NZ First's 2014 intake is Darroch Ball. There's good reason for this. The relevant Minister (Anne Tolley) is afraid of him; he's not afraid to call a ground-breaking instrument a spade when it comes to issues in his portfolio; but most important of all, he's an 'ideas man' - and puts his demonstrable intelligence to work coming up with actual, practicable legislative solutions to our issues as a Nation.

The latest piece of evidence for this is contained in Darroch's most recent Private Member's Bill, the 'Youth Employment, Training and Education' bill.

This is a revolutionary concept which proposes to help some of the 71,000 young people presently not engaged in any form of education, employment or training (or NEETs, for short), by providing an alternative pathway into these fields for youths aged 15-17 through the New Zealand Defence Force and Ministry of Social Development.

What the scheme will do is allow kids in that age-range to transfer straight from school into an Army/MSD-run program that will teach the youths in question a trade and some skills, instill discipline through living in a controlled environment, provide a ready and skilled labour force for community improvement by local governments, and also pay the kids a training wage - the majority of which will be paid out upon their 'graduation' from the program (potentially allowing them to fund an OE, a car and the bond for a flat, or even perhaps contribute to the down-payment on a mortgage for a house). At the end of the scheme, they'll be helped into employment (if they wish) thanks to the Government providing a twelve month subsidy incentive to employers to hire them.

In short, it's about providing an alternative to the upper years of high school for many of the young people who're demonstrably not being engaged by the education system at present, without letting their potential go to waste. And, in so doing, set them up for a productive, prosperous future rather than leaving them to languish as we evidently do now.

The scheme is not entirely novel in its execution, either. The NZDF-run Limited Service Volunteer program which Darroch's bill is partially inspired by has an enviable success rate itself - more than 85% of enlistees graduate the program, of which 60% then find work or other engagement. There's also interesting information showing that LSV graduates then stay off the benefit more than any other comparable group for some years after completing the program. Those are the positive numbers deliverable after a mere six weeks of work with at-risk youth. Now imagine how much of an impressive change a full three-year program with a comprehensive suite of trades and employable-skills training will make for a kid.

This will literally turn lives around for thousands, and get them off to a great start with adulthood.

And while those of us without children might view the prospective merits of this proposed solution as being somewhat academic, consider this:

A 2013 study by AUT economists pegged the costs to both the public purse and the wider economy of young people not presently engaged in education, training or employment - i.e. the group this scheme is designed to help - at around $27,000 a year per head. [1] There's 71,000 of them.

That represents combined total costs to all of us of around 2.4 billion dollars: $1.39 billion in terms of lost productivity and wages, and more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money in the form of benefit money and forgone tax revenue. [2]

We can do something to stem this tide. We can recover some of this lost potential human promise.

We can support Darroch's bill.

During my previous career as an educator working in low-decile schools, I lost count of the number of young people I encountered who would have benefited hugely from a scheme like this. There's so many high school students out there who find that the academic environment of high school - with its often seemingly teleological if not outright myopic focus upon preparing kids for university entrance - ill-fitting for them.

As it stands at the moment at high school, these kids find themselves drifting through if not dropping out thanks to disengagement - and going on from there to lives of unemployment, crime or idleness. It's sad, but the conventional strictures of the Education Act (specifically, s20 thereof) do not, at present, allow us to do terribly much to help them. By the time they hit their late teens (the minimum age at which they can opt out of school), it is in many cases too late for an easy - and life-changing - intervention. Former students face the choice between looking for qualificationless entry-level jobs that often simply aren't there, or embracing long term unemployment and all that goes with it.

When it passes, Darroch's bill will create an alternative pathway - using the transformative power of the state to establish an alternative for these young people, which will be available for them before that time-critical point of arguable no return in their late teens. The fact that they'll effectively be employed (and paid) while also being trained, educated, and providing a solid service to their local community is key.

In a month that's seen much discussion about the legacy-projects of vainglorious politicians, I'm genuinely excited that this bill presents tangible evidence that there's at least one MP out there actually thinking about how he can make an enduring difference on into the future for our people and nation.

There are some caveats, of course. Recruits for the Youth Employment, Training and Education scheme are not soldiers - nor will they be treated as such. While subject to military discipline, they shall obviously not be used in a combat capacity, deployed overseas, given weapons training, or allowed to handle live ammunition. In addition to their trades or vocational training, recruits will also be required to attain a minimum of NCEA Level 2 Literacy and Numeracy qualifications - thus setting them up for prospective entry into further education should they so wish.

So all in all, even though - or perhaps especially because - this bill carries a heavy weight of detail and economic analysis in its reasoning ... I am a thorough convert. It is no exaggeration to state that I find this to be one of the best Private Members' Bills yet produced by any MP in this Parliament.

I do not state that because I know Darroch personally, nor because I am some form of NZ First uber-hack. Instead, I say it as someone who spent the best part of a decade proximate to the individuals this bill is designed to help, and who has grown up in and around the educational environment.

With that in mind, I look forward to watching this blessed "YETE" lope off into the sunset of a better tomorrow for literally tens of thousands of our young people.

[1] Pacheco, G. & Dye, J.. (2013). Estimating The Cost Of Youth Disengagement In New Zealand (Department of Economics Working Paper Series). Auckland: AUT University.
[2] Pacheco, G. & Dye, J.. (2013). Estimating The Cost Of Youth Disengagement In Auckland (New Zealand Work Research Institute). Auckland: AUT University.

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