The evolution of vocational education: why industry guides all our work

As the vocational education and training (VET) system continues to evolve in support of a more productive and qualified workforce, Hanga-Aro-Rau Manufacturing, Engineering and Logistics Workforce Development Council (WDC) Chief Executive, Phil Alexander-Crawford, and Deputy Chief Executive, Samantha McNaughton, reflect on the journey so far and share their vision for the path ahead.

“When Hanga-Aro-Rau was established, we immediately took the approach of becoming operational and delivering functional mahi as quickly as possible,” Phil says. “The VET system wasn’t working as well as it needed to be for the manufacturing, engineering and logistics sectors, so we didn’t want to waste any time getting underway. We have let industry guide all of our work and have created structures for them to supply feedback to shape our decision-making. This approach has allowed us to respond to sectors which were previously under-heard or under-represented and proactively tailor solutions for them. In practical terms, this means more micro-credentials for learners created in collaboration with providers and more sustainable learning and career pathways across the whole labour market.”

The Workforce Development Councils, including Hanga-Aro-Rau, were launched alongside the Te Pūkenga reform, but their role in supporting the education ecosystem is much broader than just the polytechnic sector, Samantha says. “Hanga-Aro-Rau was created to ensure that vocational education is industry demand-driven; to resolve chronic skills and labour challenges by diversifying our workforces; to proactively address emerging skills, knowledge and capability needs; and to influence VET investment so that it is being allocated in line with employer and learner needs.

“Our absolute priority since we started this journey two years ago has been to amplify the voice of industry ,” Samantha says, “and to provide leadership that empowers industry to influence the vocational education system to better meet its needs. We believe that our biggest opportunity lies in strengthening industry voice and ensuring that it remains central to how we’re shaping the future. This approach benefits the entire education system including universities, Private Training Establishments (PTEs) and wānanga. It’s been really encouraging that all providers, including a number of universities and a wānanga, have already reached out to us as they know the value that comes to them from industry voice.”

Phil came to his role at Hanga-Aro-Rau via the Polytech system where, he says, he continually saw the importance of our regions, but also observed a growing need for more in-work learning.

Samantha brought complementary experience to Hanga-Aro-Rau from an Industry Training Organisation (ITO) background where she saw some positives within those structures, but also room for improvement. “Collectively, we weren’t convinced that industry had the forums required to say what they needed,” Phil says. “We quickly learned that many were very frustrated and crying out for leadership to drive meaningful change.”

Two forums, in particular, have been instrumental in providing channels for direct feedback from industry. Eight sector-specific National Industry Advisory Groups (NIAGS) have been established to guide functional, operational and organisational priorities, and an Industry Stakeholder Group (ISG) has been created to provide critical guidance and feedback on strategic direction. At least one member of each NIAG will join the ISG to ensure a connection between the strategic focus of the ISG and the operational priorities of the NIAG. This ensures that information flows seamlessly through the Hanga-Aro-Rau advisory network.

“Our National Industry Advisory Groups play a vital role in how we see industry voice influencing the future of our industries,” Samantha says. “Historically, industry groups often came together to talk about specific issues relating to qualifications and standards, but the NIAGs are providing a new and broader scope to work collaboratively on system and workforce change, and explore emerging opportunities presented by labour shortages, advancing technology, and new skills pathways. No longer do we train for a job; we need to ensure that the education system develops learners’ agility and adaptability to ensure they have meaningful, productive and prosperous careers. A strong workforce means a strong industry, which in turn ensures a strong economy.”

“The Industry Stakeholder Group (ISG) is another important piece of our feedback structure,” Phil adds. “This group works independently from our governing Council and consists of professionals across the industries we serve. They provide critical guidance and feedback on our strategic direction and performance.”

Behind the scenes, Hanga-Aro-Rau has sponsored in-depth research to examine how vocational education and training can better support industry by maintaining, upskilling and developing workforces. “Our research has reinforced the understanding that supporting our younger and older populations, Māori and Pacific Peoples, women, and those with disabilities is critically important if we want our workforces to continue to evolve, grow and succeed,” Samantha says.

“With an ever-changing workforce demographic here in New Zealand, our industries have an opportunity to build a skilled and higher-earning workforce and we will work alongside them to do that,”.Phil says. “That is the goal for Māori workforce development: greater employment opportunities which we know will be a game-changer for our people.

“We acknowledge that there is still work to do. The system is imperfect and we need to be constantly looking for ways to improve. This isn’t done from a desk, but by getting out and connecting. One of the ways that we’re doing this is through our Industry Engagement Team, who work closely with industry and then share their learnings with stakeholders and staff. To get where we need to be, we need a full-system effort.”

“There are a number of really important learnings that we have taken from the last couple of years,” Samantha says. “We know that the system needs to be more agile, efficient and demand-driven. We also see an opportunity and a responsibility for greater involvement and influence by industry in universities. We know that setting standards and registering qualifications with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) simply take too long; all the key players need to continue to work together to solve that. We are listening to our industries when they tell us that they need a more sustainable pipeline, clear career pathways and greater diversity in order to thrive. Change can be uncomfortable but, as a system, we need to be looking for improvements in how we deliver for our industries.”

Samantha reflects that industry voice will only become more critical as the vocational education system continues to evolve. “We are committed to ensuring that industry priorities are coming through even more strongly in any future system. We see the clear potential to transform vocational education through our response to changing skill needs and qualifications by providing proactive advice that drives true system change.”

“What is important to NZ Inc is important to industry and, therefore, important to us,” Phil says. “We see the importance of a national skills body, as we have learned over the last two years, and are committed to using that platform to support the leadership and innovation aspirations of our regions. We will continue to create positive, long-term impact on growth and productivity with more qualified workforces that can better support New Zealand trade and export.”

“Hand on heart, we can say that we have supported industry to better inform the vocational education system,” Samantha says. “This is what will continue to guide us as we move forward.”

Hanga-Aro-Rau Manufacturing, Engineering and Logistics Workforce Development Council (WDC) Chief Executive, Phil Alexander-Crawford, and Deputy Chief Executive, Samantha McNaughton

Chief Executive, Phil Alexander-Crawford and Deputy Chief Executive, Samantha McNaughton.