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Smart Waikato is an education and employment NGO which is working on systemic change.

They aim to achieve three main goals: increased youth employment, reduced regional skill shortages, and partnerships between educators and employers.

Their focus is on building the capability of educators, employers, iwi and community organisations so that (a) rangatahi can successfully transition into jobs that they are prepared for – and want, and (b) employers get a motivated employee, who is a good fit for the job.

The organisation has a Theory of Change which says: “If New Zealand rangatahi receive relevant education, careers and transitions experiences, and are connected to employers who support them with learning opportunities, they are more likely to progress to decent jobs and incomes, leading to greater health, wealth and wellbeing for themselves, their whānau and their communities.”

A foundation initiative is the Secondary School Employer Partnerships (SSEP). This is a formal relationship between schools and local employers from a range of industries. The SSEP approach was born out of a principal/employer job swap for a day, giving business and community leaders insight into a principal’s world. That was about a decade ago. Since then more than 10,000 rangatahi, 250 employers and 250 educations have taken part in SSEP.

The SSEP framework is adapted to each school’s kaupapa. Local employers are able to link into school faculties, especially those such as science and maths, to help rangatahi understand the application of these subjects. The 52 participating schools have described SSEP as creating transformational change in the way they are approaching learning.

To engage, equip and mobilise communities, Smart Waikato holds events for employers, educators, community organisations and other influencers throughout the region. The challenge is to empower young people through real education and employment pathways, largely by working together to develop sustainable career pathways for young people. Attendees are also given free resources by the trust to help them do so.

Employers can also participate in a range of Smart Waikato workshops, including cultural competency in partnership with local iwi specialists or Get Ahead With Gen Z. Sally Birch is the Relationship Manager for Smart Waikato. She says that a focus of the organisation is on the importance of continuing training and upskilling through life. “This is even more important post-Covid. There is a huge skill shortage in New Zealand at the moment, and a labour shortage too and employers need to be part of the solution. They need to be prepared to upskill their people. We have a new generation of young people who expect more out of a job, looking for pathways. That’s what the workshop, Get Ahead with Gen Z is about.

“At the workshop we talk about the NEET problem. We have a very low unemployment rate and a very high NEET rate. It’s 17 percent of all 20–24-year-olds in Waikato and about 12 percent of 15–18-year-olds. That’s what’s motivating us to do what we are doing. It’s a huge waste of talent.

“The thing about NEETs today, they are not necessarily the stereotype NEET. They could be anybody’s children. Covid has created anxiety issues, making it normal not to go to school. Normal life has been taken away from them. So, we work with both ends, employers and schools – putting the two worlds together.”

So 13–14-year-olds are brought into an experiential programme, going into workplaces to see how their school subjects apply. The relevance is also built into their classroom work. Teachers are an integral part of the process. This systemic approach means that everyone, not just those more motivated students who seek careers advice, get the information they need to make pathway choices.

It has increased their aspirations, says Sally. “The impact has been profound. From 2016 to 2020 we surveyed almost 3000 students who participated in the programme. The very large majority of students said that the scheme had influenced their school subject choice and their ambitions.

“Similarly a large percentage of teachers said that it had changed the way they planned the curriculum. Most employers said they would consider working with another school on SSEP.

“And we found it had a particularly high impact on Māori. I think that is because it is relationship-based, face-to-face. Students get taken to workplaces and see others like them working there, or managing the business, and it inspires them.”

You can watch the impact video Celebrating 5 years of SSEP (Part 1).

Employers have also been upskilled though their participation in the Cultural Competency workshops, and the NGO – an incredibly important step says Sally.

“The new generation has an expectation like never before that workplaces are culturally competent. Diversity is the norm, and so is respecting the local tikanga and kawa, or the community’s way of doing things. Employers must also be clear about their own workplace tikanga if they are to successfully establish fruitful employment relationships.”

Then there are the two products that support the transition into sustainable pathways – an app and a website. The smart phone app, endorseMe® helps to identify, develop and record work-readiness skills – all the soft skills (although Sally prefers to call them employability skills) such as thinking, communication and resilience – the skills rangatahi need to get up every day and go to work. The app is supported by an online portal for co-ordinators and endorsers who can include teachers, mentors, employers and work experience providers.

The website, FutureForce® Careers Hub, is a careers information site – the communication’s component of the mahi. It’s been designed by young people, for young people (with the help of local experts), and includes a job board, where employers can list a job or a work experience opportunity – as well as heaps of ‘live’, engaging sector information for rangatahi and whānau.

FutureForce®, which also includes a strong social media and print element, is funded by local employers, who sign up to profile their star young employees and to be seen as “employers of choice” by young people.

ACE organisations working with rangatahi will be able to both use endorseMe® – and use the Smart website to find jobs with a good fit for their learners.

The latest initiative by the organisation is Career Hauora, a careers programme built around the four pillars of wellbeing. The programme is currently being piloted at one of the local schools and integrates the life skills and careers education into general learning with a Year 9–13 framework. Careers Hauora reduces inequity by going beyond the over-extended careers department and brining careers education into the general curriculum. The aim is to extend Career Hauora into two more schools next year and two youth development organisations.

In 2018 Smart Waikato won the Economic Development NZ award for best practice in collaboration. It was won as a result of nine years’ hard work by Smart Waikato founder and CEO Mary Jensen. Mary, who has worked in education and regional development for over 30 years, is a big picture thinker:

“I have long seen the education system as broken. We need to bring educators and employers together on a parallel pathway. In fact the Ministry of Education now supports this. We don’t want an education system that is solely focused on getting NCEA and onto a pathway into tertiary education. We need to bring the business world and the schools together, breaking down the silos: by breaking down the bubble around schools so young people can see the relevance of going to school. If we can do that, I think it will have particularly profound impact on Māori and Pasifika, who have been the main casualties of the current system.”

In 2020 the organisation established Smart NZ to help other regions learn from their practice. Already the Ministry for Primary Industries in Canterbury has bought the licence to run SSEP for Primary and related industries in Canterbury, with Ōtautahi schools taking the opportunity to participate.


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Smart Waikato: using partnerships to create sustainable pathways for rangatahi | Adult and Community Education
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