My journey began 54 years ago in a small rural community. School was uneventful for me, a frustrating place that couldn’t compete with my desire to be in work, fixing things. I just wanted to be a mechanic, with the feel of tools in my hands; not books. Mr Spencer will tell you I left by “mutual agreement,” and for once, I wouldn’t disagree with him. At the age of 17 I began a motorcycle engineering apprenticeship, and at age 23, in a little town called Otorohanga, I realised my dream of establishing a motorcycle dealership. With my own business I had responsibilities and freedom, an experience I was able to share with many young people who were almost exactly like me. I employed kids who had performed poorly at school but were creative and practical; assets to my businesses.

If you’d told me then I would serve three terms on Council, before being elected Mayor of the Otorohanga District in 2004, a position I would hold for 9 years, I would have laughed you out of town. And yet looking back, it was purely my passion and belief in my town and our community’s potential that lead to my unexpected career turn.

As Mayor I was immediately confronted with obvious and pressing challenges. Within weeks of being sworn in, multiple significant local businesses came to me saying they were considering relocation due to lack of suitable staff. Tragically within the first few weeks, our community also lost two young men to suicide. When I met with their friends and families they told me that young people in Otorohanga were disillusioned by the lack of work opportunities in the district: there was “nothing here for them.” Through further investigation I met young apprentices who were eight years into a four year apprenticeship, and I saw the local high school careers advisor who had no connection to employers, and said he “didn’t even like young people.”

I began to think about my own story, and how our community could do better at building a future for these young people.

When I left school I knew I wanted to be a mechanic, because I had the opportunity to work in local garages throughout the school holidays. Fast forward to today, too few employers offer after school jobs, or work experience opportunities. It’s easier to hide behind OSH regulations or being “too busy.” So then, how does a young person know how to be reliable, disciplined, and productive in their new job if they’ve never been in a workplace?

My apprenticeship was gained largely due to my father’s influence and support. Today, many young people don’t have an active father in their lives, or friends and family able to make important connections. When I began work, we were placed under the care and protection of an older experienced tradesman, learning the job at a pace we could cope with. Today however, workplaces are often frantic, stressful, without extra capacity to support young staff. They can be very frightening places for a young person straight out of school.

biker man in street tattoos

It doesn’t end there. Traditionally we take a young person, provide them the best education available, and cross our fingers for a job. The most well-lit and well funded pathway throughout secondary education is the progression to tertiary and higher education, yet statistically this works for less than 50% of school leavers, regardless of decile. If this prescription isn’t turning out how we want or hope, we all have to think more creatively.

From my experience I advise students: “if the career path you choose requires a degree, get one, that’s logical. But a degree will not necessarily make you more employable.” Qualifications are one aspect, but confidence, practical skills, attitude, experience, time management, and having your drivers licence and first aid certificate count too. The Government calls them “Employability Skills and Work Readiness Attributes.” My Dad would have called them “the basics.”

People say our young are lazy, and badly motivated. I think that’s nonsense. Our young people have not lost the ‘work ethic’ my generation believes it was born with, and it’s frustrating to hear people who should know better disparage the younger generation as less committed, willing, or able to work—what nonsense!

I have never met a young person who doesn’t want to work—earn their own money, provide for their family, and have the mana of being self sufficient.

But I have met many who don’t know what work is, and that is the heart of the issue.

New Zealanders have a well deserved international reputation as friendly, hard working, with a great attitude and a broad range of skills.  There’s no reason we can’t use the energy and drive of our young people to build their future. Work skills can’t all be taught in a classroom, yet communities rely almost entirely on schools to prepare students to be work ready. This is unrealistic and unfair on educators.

There needs to be more meaningful and long-term partnerships with industry and employers, to take advantage of the tools many schools now offer, including Gateway, Trades Academies, Vocational Pathways. These provide excellent opportunities for students to become familiar and confident in the workplace, and proud of their trade, the same way I am proud to be an ex-mechanic.

It intrigues me that while businesses budget for vehicles, IT, marketing, premises, and equipment, not many will commit significant investment to future staff requirements—even fewer employers can actually name their local school’s Gateway Co-ordinator or Careers Advisor. Industry itself stands to gain significantly by more effective partnerships, from well educated, prepared, and skilled young people entering their workplaces.

But it doesn’t stop there. Put bluntly, if the young person misses out, so will the community. Young people have options. With the click of a mouse they can be anywhere in the world—meaningfully employed, well paid, with a choice of benefits and perks, in exciting locations, and most significantly, appreciated and valued.

Further still, global populations are rapidly aging. The real threat however, is not so much from more elderly, but fewer young. Population graphs of our major trading partners look like Halley’s Comet. Huge population bubbles of those over 50 taper away to very, very few young people and children.

Over the next 15-25 years, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will exit workplaces—the question is who will fill their vacancies in the main street of towns like Otorohanga?

And think, if it’s challenging to engage, attract, and retain the ideal young employee today, you can guarantee it will be much harder in future.

We are currently doing a disservice to thousands of young people who will one day be our teachers, tax-payers, Mayors, and mechanics. But this issue is no longer just about doing better for our young people, this is about our communities’ economic sustainability. The unavoidable and impending global demographic urgency makes this is now an issue of national importance.

We have to re-think how we treat our young people, instead of writing them off we must invest in them, partner-up, collaborate, and make sure that our businesses, families, industries, and communities truly are sustainable.

My story and experience helped me lead Otorohanga through creating and implementing a suite of initiatives that tackled this stuff. We took responsibility for the transition phase between school and work: partnering with local business to bring a training institution into town, co-ordinating training for young people in skills that were needed in the local economy while providing mentoring programmes and supporting them into apprenticeships and jobs.

We don’t always need to look overseas for ideas and inspiration, sometimes it’s literally in our backyard, or in this case 53 kilometres south of Hamilton and 18 kilometres north of Te Kuiti. I think that communities like Otorohanga everywhere can step-up, exercise leadership, and take ownership of the connection between jobs and education. Generally communities measure supply and have sufficient resources (including money), but few accurately understand local demand. In Otorohanga, we brought local knowledge and leadership together to create something better for our kids.

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Results for our town were immediate, impressive, and well documented, and boy did we celebrate! In 2004 our registered youth unemployment was around 12-14%; this plummeted to zero by 2007. In the same period we saw a 75% reduction in youth crime, and apprenticeship completion rates skyrocketed to 96-100% compared to the national average of less than 40%—all within two years. Our strategy was simple, we gathered together to share ideas and co-ordinate three key areas: supply of potential job seekers; resources of providers; and trainers and expertise and demand in in the local job market. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to help other communities find their own solutions; working “@ the COALface,” supporting communities and their leaders develop initiatives based on Community Ownership And Leadership (COAL).

Because the longer a community allows itself to believe that they would be a better place if only the Government/the Council/somebody else did more, gave more, stopped doing … the less sustainable that community will become.

Truth is, communities already have the essentials to revive. We make a mistake in blaming young people for much that is not their fault. If we put our heads together, we’ll always find better fits and better connections between job opportunities and education. In Māori, Otorohanga means “food for a long journey”—to young people the meaning found in a job can literally provide food for life. If we pay more attention to the resources local people already have, the energy, passion, and drive they possess, and marry that up with practical wisdom that gets things done, we have a shot at a better future. Our small towns are more than holding pens, or also-rans. They are the hope for a sustainable and really connected future. I believe that’s worth fighting for.

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Dale Williams

A motorcycle mechanic by trade, Dale’s years of involvement in local politics kicked off when he was elected to the Otorohanga Community Board and District Council in 1995. Elected as Mayor of Otorohanga in 2004, Dale’s innovation and passion for his town and district led to an incredible improvement in youth engagement, employment, achievement, and even youth crime statistics. He now chairs the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs, expanding the mantra “zero waste of young people” across New Zealand.