Budget to include radical new approach to skills retraining

: Trade unionists from the Labour Party's affiliated unions at the party's conference in Dunedin two weeks ago.
 

The Government is moving towards some form of European=-style subsidy for people whose jobs are threatened because of technological change.

The subsidy would be to allow them to retrain and would be linked into the “first year free” tertiary education programme.

But ”tertiary” does not just mean university; it could be any form of trade or technological training at Polytechnics and specialised training institutions.

The proposal springs out of Grant Robertson’s “Commission on the Future of Work” which Labour prepared while it was in opposition.

It was modelled on Denmark’s “Flexicurity” which now forms the basis of a European Union programme.

“Flexicurity” in the EU  is an integrated strategy for enhancing, at the same time, flexibility and security in the labour market.

It attempts to reconcile employers' need for a flexible workforce with workers' need for security – confidence that they will not face long periods of unemployment.

It was discussed yesterday at the second meeting of the Future of Work Tripartite Forum focussed on how to remove barriers faced by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and the issue of technological disruption. 

The Forum is a partnership between Government, business (represented by Business NZ) and workers (represented by the Council of Trade Unions).

It was set up to shape the Government’s work supporting New Zealand workers and businesses to confidently face the rapidly changing nature of work. 

The meeting included presentations from McKinsey Senior Partner and Business Advisory Council member Andrew Grant and NZ Tech CE Graeme Muller on technological disruption in the business sector. 

Energy Minister Megan Woods also presented on the “just transition” programmes being implemented to assist oil industry workers to move to new careers.

Globally we are seeing a massive growth in technologies that were once considered science fiction – things like robotic surgery, drones, artificial intelligence, cellular agriculture, inductive transfer and autonomous vehicles.

“All of these technological changes will make us more productive, but they are also having significant impacts on the way we work," Grant Robertson said.

Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff said: “A key element of adapting to this change is ensuring that we have the right skills for the future. We need to understand what measures will need to be taken to prevent technological unemployment and the aggravations of serious skills shortages in key industries such as manufacturing.” 

The Forum confirmed $250,000 of funding from MBIE would be put towards supporting the initial component of the Skills Shift in Manufacturing Initiative created and led by the NZ Manufacturers Network. This initiative is to identify the skills shifts needed in manufacturing to support the workforce to take on the opportunities of technological change. 

The Forum also discussed the impact of the changing nature of work on SMEs. Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett gave input on barriers faced by SMEs, some of which are unrecognisable given the changing nature of work. 

Business NZ CEO Kirk Hope said: “While a lot of the focus of technological disruption is on the larger businesses driving headline-grabbing changes, businesses of all sizes can drive and benefit from the changing nature of technology and work. It’s vitally important – particularly in New Zealand – that Government, businesses and workers approach this future together.” 

Robertson told POLITIK that proposals for retraining would be linked to the "first-year free fees' programme and it needed to be remembered that that programme applied beyond universities.

But the question of how to fund workers undergoing retraining is the big one.

Robertson said that any result would need to be a cooperative effort between the government, business and unions.

However, he said he was aiming to have an announcement in next year's Budget.

The proposal is a big one for Labour and is important to its trade union affiliates who confront the realities of technological change in their everyday work.

One example Robertson has talked about is the straddle carrier drivers at Auckland port who face redundancy as the port moves toward automation of its container handling facilities next year.

Under a “flexicurity” type scheme the workers would be retrained, with the company picking up some of the tab as part of their redundancy and the Government not only providing free subsidies but also some form of basic income support.

However Robertson said that a scheme like this was easy enough for big companies to implement, but difficult for smaller companies, which is one of the reasons the talks are continuing.

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