New Zealand Labour Party

Grant Robertson - Speech to the 2014 Workforce for the Future Conference

Thank you 

It’s a great pleasure to be here today, both because of the importance of the topic, and because I am excited that this is a conference co-hosted by Industry Training Organisations and Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics.  

Bringing these two groups together marks the conference organisers out for a future role in peacekeeping in the world’s trouble spots, so well  done.

In all seriousness the work that has gone in to developing this conference and the agreed policy statement on a new direction for Vocational Education and Training in New Zealand are an important contribution to ensuring that we have a fit-for-purpose system of vocational training for the 21st century.  

For me, and for the Labour Party, at the heart of our approach to developing such a system are three core principles.


The first is people and the work they do must be at the centre of our economy.  It is the job of every government to ensure that it gets the economic settings right and that we manage the hard earned dollars of taxpayers well. 

But we need to do that not for its own sake but for what we can do for people with it.  

Our economy has to have a purpose -- a human purpose to help people reach their aspirations and potential. 

The economy and the management of it must not be seen as an end in itself.  That leads to policies that forget people and the work they do is an essential part of living a dignified life.  

In particular in an economy with a human purpose jobs and work must be our focus. 

Labour has committed to an economic upgrade with exactly this in mind.  We are going to invest in infrastructure, innovation and industry to create decent jobs with higher wages. 

We have to move past an economy riding waves of commodity prices and disaster recovery to one with a diversified range of sectors that are focused on innovation, improving productivity and promoting sustainability.

Quite clearly that involves a large focus on education, skills and training.  You all know that our labour productivity remains very low by OECD standards, and you have already heard at this conference how a focus on skills and training will improve that.  

The second core principle is Learning for Life.

Nowadays it’s my job to follow the Minister of Tertiary Education around giving speeches to clear up his misconceptions, but twenty years  ago I trailed around behind the Minister of Tertiary Education as a student leader protesting and occasionally  getting him to climb out windows. 

But for all of my disagreements with Lockwood Smith he made a concerted effort to promote the idea of learning for life. 

That the end of compulsory schooling was not the end of the learning journey.  He didn’t fund it mind you, but he understood that the health of our economy and society, and our well-being as individuals hinged on our ability to continue to have opportunities to learn and grow.

When the New Zealand Curriculum was launched in the mid-2000s, one of the architects Lester Flockton said that its goal was to help prepare people for jobs that have not been invented yet. 

That curriculum is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government, both in its collaborative and consultative development and in the outcome that is regarded as world leading. 

The young people leaving school today will likely have half a dozen or more jobs and perhaps two or three different  careers.  The curriculum gives them the chance to develop a base of skills and attributes that  will stand them in good stead.

But it is not possible to prepare the workforce of the future just through a visionary school curriculum.  We have to ensure those opportunities for learning and training and re-training continue through life. 

That means VET-- alongside second chance learning opportunities.  It means industry training.  It means supporting people to return to study after a long time away. 

Learning for Life has to be a guiding principle for a modern economy and an inclusive society.

The third principle is Equality. 

You will have heard and will hear a great deal about inequality at this election.    And so you should.

While the economic statistics the Minister has talked of show signs of improvement, a serious question has to be asked as to who will benefit from that.

When 240,000 children live in poverty, when 10% of New Zealanders own 50% of the wealth, when CEOs earn 26 times the pay of the average employee -- we need to change; we can’t just go on complacently managing the cycle, we need to innovate.

This is wrong in a country that has prided itself of being egalitarian where your chance of success is determined by your own efforts not by the accident of your birth.   But that is under pressure as disparity of income and wealth grows.

But you should also hear about another kind of inequality this election --regional  inequality. 

It’s great news that Auckland is growing and Canterbury is recovering, but other regions are struggling. 

Unemployment is well over the national average of 6% in some regions- 8% in Northland.

A wander down the main street of cities like Whanganui or Rotorua is a memory test for what shop was where the empty window now is. 

The median income on the East Coast of the North Island is down $61 in the last six years.

We need to do something different and something now to change this and create more equality between the regions. 

VET will play a vital role in lifting those regions who are struggling to ensure they have innovative and diverse economies.

So, on the basis of those core principles for placing VET within a new economy that is working for all people and regions, we are looking for a focus on quality, innovation and collaboration.

We strongly support the focus on making the system work for employers and learners that is spelled out in the New Directions document.

I want to acknowledge that there have been some steps forward in making the VET system more efficient in recent years, and here credit must go to ITOs who have taken hard decisions to merge and change focus. 

It is tough and keeping the confidence of employers can be difficult with changes of staff and branding. 

Labour will not throw away the organisational changes that have been made for the sake of it. 

If they are working and are accepted we will carry on with them. 

This includes the New Zealand Apprenticeship system. 

We are pleased after several years of inaction that the National-led government got stuck into increasing the number of apprentices and we will continue that work, with some exciting additions, including digital apprenticeships as part of our ICT upgrade and some other announcements to come. 

One area where we will reverse changes is the removal of the Skills Leadership function for ITOs and the direct funding provision contained in this year's legislation.   

I never picked Steven Joyce as an anarchist but having “no one" responsible for skills leadership in the belief that this will lead to some organic outcome is not good enough. 

ITOs are best placed as representatives of employers, workers and with strong links to government to play the Skills Leadership role.

Look no further than CareerForce's leadership in the so-called allied health workforce if you want to see skills leadership in action, in a place where it otherwise would not have happened.   

We also want to ensure that the Boards of ITOs remain representative and we will be seeking to ensure worker and learner voices are heard at the Board table.

But despite these advances the system is still too fragmented -- and this has impact on employers, learners and those who organise and deliver training.

The heart of this is in the different funding and accountability systems that rule your lives, and those who learn with you. 

Every visit I make to a business that is heavily involved in training includes a discussion about some frustration with understanding the complex interaction of parts of the VET system, when all they want is to train productive workers and give them a chance at success. 

Many of you succeed despite this system -- wouldn't it be great if you succeeded because of the system.

We will work with you to develop a system like this, drawing on the ideas in the New Directions document.  A critical part of this will be having ITPs and ITOs at the same table.

In order to have the integrated, agile and responsive VET system, we need strong strategic leadership. 

If every conversation I have had with employers goes to their difficulty with the interaction of the system, then every visit to an ITP includes a series of deep sighs and an excess of eye rolling at the mention of the Tertiary Education Commission.

This is not operating as we intended it as a strategic funding body, and my colleague Maryan Street who is here today will have more to say about this in the coming weeks when our full tertiary education policy is announced. 

Today I can say that Labour will re-establish a New Zealand Skills and Employment Strategy developed with employers, workers and training providers that gives a set of agreed, clear and direct goals, targets and indicators for increasing the skills and productivity of our workforce. 

In the absence of this collaboratively produced document fragmentation will flourish.

Our policy is that we want all businesses of a reasonable size to have a plan for training, and to have access to the support and resources for that.

We want more people moving through a pathway to higher levels of qualifications. 

While we might all be engaged in preparing workers for jobs that have not been invented yet, we can say with certainty that lifting the qualification levels of our workforce will be good for us all.  

One note of caution on the current government's focus on school leavers achieving Level 2 qualifications. 

This is admirable -- although watch out for gaming of the system. 

Moreover we do not want to see this focus lead to a situation where those outside the compulsory system are not supported to deliver whatever is the appropriate and needed level of training. 

There will be occasions where Level 1 and 2 is appropriately delivered through the people in this room -- that is what a flexible and agile system should facilitate.

With all of that, as the New Directions document states, it is the outcome of the training that is truly important. 

The goal for VET must include the “right skills used  in the best way.”  To make this happen we need collaboration, clarity and coherence.  And we need ITOs and ITPs clear in your joint and separate roles.


As I said, Maryan Street will shortly announce our full tertiary policy, which will include a number of initiatives to support ITPs and vocational education in general but today I want to announce an initiative that gives evidence of our commitment to VET policy that will support sustainable economic growth and productivity, especially in our regions and deliver quality, relevant and innovative training.

Labour will establish Centres of Vocational Excellence to be based at Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics.  These centres will lead the way in developing a strong base of innovation for key sectors in our economy.

The Centres will operate in a similar way to Centres of Research Excellence and support collaboration between those working in a field from different institutions, agencies and businesses. 

ITPs will be invited to propose the establishment of a centre based on an existing area of expertise or specialisation, and we would expect most bids to involve more than one ITP.

This idea has been born of many visits to tertiary institutions and businesses over the last five years.  It is a demonstration of our belief that the quality improvements in VET will not come from a senseless system of competition, but from collaboration and a focus on the needs of our economy and people. 

It is also born of our desire to lift the status and quality of vocational education and training.   

We need to be encouraging young people and those who re-train to be a part of our trades.  As we all know it is in these areas we will see many of the productivity improvements that are needed to increase value in our economy. 

It is time to take vocational education as seriously as the vital research led education done in our universities.  If universities can have COREs, then ITPs can have COVES.   I hasten to add for those familiar with the British system – it’s the same name but a different idea.

The current government has cut around $60 million from regional polytechnics.  That has made life hard, and led to a loss of staff and important programmes. 

It has an impact on those regional economies.

Labour is committed to ensuring that these Centres of Excellence support the regional economic development plans that we will be developing with local government, businesses and communities. 

We recently announced a $200 million fund for infrastructure projects that will support these plans.

We see COVEs as part of the same picture -- building on the strengths of ITPs and supporting regions and industries to grow, be innovative and more productive

A critical element of COVEs will be the collaboration between ITPs, ITOs, CRIs, iwi and other stakeholders in economic development.  We would expect, and we will fund, the innovation that will come from all those players working together.

This should be the point in this speech where I give an example of a COVE we might fund.  I am wary about that, not least because I have to be able to leave the room at some point today. 

But it is clear that in a number of industries -- think horticulture, viticulture, design, engineering --there are huge opportunities to lift the value of the sector and the place of education and training in them.  I know regions and ITPs are at the ready to do this. 

We want the criteria for deciding on what Centres will be funded and on where they will be housed to be developed with the Sector. 

We are dedicating $40 million over the next four years to establish these centres.  Our goal is to have ten of them established by the end of our first term in office. 

We want them to have as their focus increasing the quality of teaching, the relevance of learning, to foster innovation, research and development.  

We intend that an independent panel will assess applications, including representation from industry.

We want Centres Of Vocational Excellence to lift the quality and status of VET. 

It is just one policy that we hope shows that we understand the importance of a system that is more collaborative, more agile and more coherent.

We want to work with you to develop that overall system that ensures VET has the place, the resources and the mana to play its rightful part in a growing and sustainable economy where people come first.