The Otorohanga model

February 2012


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Through a number of initiatives Otorohanga district has successfully reduced youth unemployment. Believe the hype, says JUDE BARBACK.

Prince Charles was recently the guest speaker for Otorohanga College’s annual prizegiving. His speech was well received but his attire perplexed many; he appeared to be wearing some sort of fur hat with a tail. When questioned about it afterwards, Prince Charles responded, “Oh yes, well I wasn’t sure what one wears in Otorohanga so I asked Mummy. ‘Mummy,’ I said, ‘What does one wear to a function in Otorohanga?’ to which she responded, ‘Otorohanga? Wear the fox hat.’”

Ok, so maybe one is sinking to new lows by introducing a very inspirational story with a rather crude joke (source shall remain nameless), however, it does bear some relevance. Otorohanga is a small King Country town that, until recently, has largely gone under the radar, with many New Zealanders (let alone members of the monarchy) ignorant of its existence.

But no more. Otorohanga was brought to media attention last year for its efforts in dramatically reducing youth unemployment over the past five years. In fact, Otorohanga reportedly has had the lowest registered youth unemployment since November 2006. Not only that, but the small town has managed to banish the usual side effects of anti-social behaviour such as youth crime and graffiti.

And all this in a town where 37 per cent of the population aged 15 years and over do not have a post-school qualification; the national average is 25 per cent. How are they doing it?

It all began about seven years ago when a small group from the local community decided to investigate why Otorohanga district school leavers were not taking up locally available trade jobs and apprenticeships. They discovered that young people were leaving Otorohanga to take up pre-employment qualifications and study elsewhere.

So, with mayor Dale Williams at the helm, the group decided to establish the Otorohanga Trade Training Centre in partnership with the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec). Research was undertaken to identify the industries with the greatest uptake of apprentices, and specific courses were developed to train school leavers in skills that local employers needed. Some employers even guaranteed jobs following the completion of certain courses.

In fact it is the Trade Training Centre that lies at the heart of this town’s success story. It is driven by Marlene Perry, who manages Wintec’s regional centres in Otorohanga and Te Kuiti, and local employers who specify the availability of jobs and what skills are needed. Ray Haley, the centre’s trade apprentice coordinator, ensures all apprentices complete their training successfully and on time. Haley also provides weekly night-school classes and regular contact with employers and apprentices. As a result of this collaborative effort, the Otorohanga apprentice programme is achieving over 90 per cent completion rates, which is remarkable when compared to national completion rates of less than 20 per cent.

The Trade Training Centre has prompted the generosity of many local employers and organisations. Among them are McDonald’s Lime Ltd and the Otorohanga Rotary Club, which contribute to scholarships aimed at helping Trade Training Centre students to meet their course fees, accommodation and travel needs.

As an example of its triumph over unemployment, the centre has successfully graduated 66 students in the National Certificate in Automotive and Engineering Level 2 and maintained a 100 per cent employment record. Such graduations are not taken lightly. Annual mayoral graduation ceremonies honour trade centre graduates and successful Otorohanga district apprentices, helping to elevate the status of trades qualifications.

Recognising success is important. Young Achievers awards are also given to acknowledge and reward excellence in sport, culture and academia in people aged 16 to 25 years.

If the Trade Training Centre is the heart, then Otorohanga College’s Gateway programme is a major artery, feeding into the same goal of eradicating youth unemployment. The programme aims to train students in practical work skills off-site or in the workplace and help them gain employment. Otorohanga College’s principal, Timoti Harris, conveys a positive message through the school’s website, seemingly embracing the sense of community which employers have too. The high school is in an important position in assisting the district in its goal to lower youth unemployment and has apparently risen to the challenge.

Indeed the goodwill is infectious in Otorohanga. It is hard not to want to help and be a part of the reformation. It is vaguely reminiscent of David Cameron (before his prime ministerial days) urging the British population to ‘hug a hoodie’ in an attempt to reduce delinquency – but without the condescension and fuelled with a more genuine connection to the young people seeking opportunities.

MPowa School Leavers Connection Programme is one such party that is committed to the success of the town’s youth. The programme was established in early 2008 to support school leavers in their transition to further education, training and employment. MPowa is run by Carole Coventry, who receives details of approximately 80 local students as they leave secondary school, and talks with them about their future options. She ensures they are supported during this transition period. MPowa maintains a database of all providers, agencies, trainers, educators and employer networks that offer opportunities in the Otorohanga district.

Through MPowa, Coventry directs many school leavers to Wintec in Otorohanga, which has four part-time programmes that are funded by Adult and Community Education (ACE): Smart Start (an introductory literacy assessment programme), Fast Track (which helps provide the literacy and numeracy skills needed for their chosen area), Computer Literacy and Driver Licence.

And there are so many more examples of support for the town’s young people as they embark on the ‘real world’: annual careers expos to introduce local industries to school students in an entertaining, hands-on and informative way; ‘point of sale’ trade brochures highlighting the career opportunities and the attraction of living locally. The Harvest Rock Youth Centre, established by Assembly of God’s Harvest Christian Fellowship and Harvest Trust, has an indoor rock-climbing wall and provides school holiday, leadership and mentoring programmes, and after school activities from Monday to Saturday; on Sunday it is a church.

Certainly Otorohanga’s success has taken the collaborative efforts of many local individuals and organisations. The town’s website pays tribute to the many groups and businesses who have contributed and proudly proclaims, ‘The results are obvious! Otorohanga people are proud, enthusiastic and determined to make an impact. Come and visit the Otorohanga district soon and experience the difference as you truly ‘Make the Kiwi Connection’!’

No one could begrudge Otorohanga using their impressive youth employment schemes as a means to promote their town. The town is reaping the benefits of investing in its young people. Last February BERL Economics reported on Local Authority Regional Indicators, stating that the biggest climber was the Otorohanga district, which climbed from 64th to 17th place. The report put the town’s excellent performance down to improvements in FTE growth and GDP growth.

At the end of the day it is education that is the real winner here; living proof of what we know to be true – that educating people, to whatever level, brings its own rewards, to the individual and to the wider community. This is a success story every New Zealand town will surely want to emulate.

(And to be absolutely clear, Samantha Wilshier was the guest speaker at Otorohanga College’s 2011 senior prizegiving – not His Royal Highness Prince of Wales – and there was not a fox hat to be seen.)

Otago follows suit

Following the success of Otorohanga’s Trade Training Centre and other centres around the country, Otago Polytechnic has opened a new Trades Academy, designed for teenagers who want to get started on trade qualifications while they’re still at high school.

The academy is based at the polytechnic’s Central Otago campus and is the result of a partnership between Otago Polytechnic and the four Central Otago secondary schools . Wakatipu High School, Mt Aspiring College, Cromwell College and Dunstan High School.

Like the Otorohanga initiative, the Otago academy has had great support from the local community so far, with some local businesses providing workspace to allow students to develop their skills. More are expected to come on board as the academy gains momentum.

Paula Buchanan of Buchanan Transport says she and her husband are thrilled to be able to support the academy by providing workshop space complete with a hoist for the students.

“We have teenage boys and think this is a wonderful idea. When the polytech came looking for space, we were very pleased to be able to help support a positive community initiative which will provide good qualifications as well as qualified people that the region needs,” says Buchanan.

Otago Polytechnic regional manager Jean Tilleyshort says the goal is to keep teens in school by making school more relevant to them by providing some hands-on instruction in their areas of interest. “Otherwise, they might leave without qualifications and without reaching their potential,” says Tilleyshort.

Students joining the academy will study at school for four days each week, and at the polytech one day towards NCEA and a vocational (trade) qualification.

“These students will be able to finish their school years with good qualifications that will set them up for careers in the fields they enjoy. The day a week in a workshop or similar will offer relevance to some of the work they’re doing at high school,” says Tilleyshort.

There are currently 36 places available for 2012 in construction, automotive and primary industry; these are expected to be filled by students in Year 12, working towards NCEA Level 2. Otago Polytechnic will look to develop additional options for 2013, working towards programmes that will deliver a wider range of qualifications.

Best of all, the programme is funded by Government at no charge to the students – even transport costs are covered.

It seems the Central Otago Trades Academy is set to provide another shining example of how a community can engage with its young people to help provide pathways for their future careers.