ALAN TITCHALL talks to ALISTAIR MCINTYRE about his latest industry recruiting programme, Youth Into Industry.
IT IS LATE AFTERNOON on New Year’s Eve at Russell in Northland and I have been sent on a mission to buy a bottle of bubbles to wash down a late afternoon treat – two dozen local oysters in the half shell.
Russell in holiday mode is a blaze of pohutakawas, suncream, icecreams, shorts and jandals, so I can’t believe it when, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a queue of mums and kids in the Duke of Marlborough carpark that leads to a mini-exacavtor operated by a familiar sight on industry event days.
“Mate. Do you ever take a break?”
“This is my life. Encouraging young people into the workforce. I don’t know if that is classified as work?”
Well, most people would, but then they are not Alistair McIntyre, aka Doug the Digger.
His working affair with holiday Russell, he says, started some time ago when he tarted up his digger for the local Christmas parade.
“I used to drag a Christmas tree behind me loaded with presents for the children.”
Then he graduated to playing (at this stage his voice lowers to a whisper) … Santa. And he does have the ideal girth for the job.
“I have been Father Christmas in Russell for the past 15 years,” he says with pride.
Most readers will be familiar with Alistair’s story: A decade after an accident that crushed his arm he went back to school to learn to write & then wrote the classic Doug the Digger book for children. Incredibly, he went back to primary school at the age of 37 & was taught by the same teacher who struggled to teach him at the age of seven. Since then he has spent his life going around schools as an ambassador for civil contracting. The Gough CAT sponsored mini digger he hauls around the country’s schools and shows has done over 2000 hours now with children operating under instruction, he tells me.
He has also visited over 1200 schools around the country as a Duffy (author Alan Duff as in Once Were Warriors) Books in Homes role model.
On top of all this is his Youth Into Industry programme where Alistair brings high school students in touch with industry.
Career opportunities for schools
A few weeks before bumping into Alistair in Russell, he and his work colleague Barbara called into Contrafed Publishing’s office for a more formal interview to discuss and promote his Youth Into Industry programme, which he set up six years ago.
“The idea is to give high school aged students, who are interested in civil contracting, an opportunity to meet people in the industry, have a look around work sites, build relationships and make informed decisions about their career paths.”
The programme rides on two school ‘career’opportunities.
The first is the Ministry of Education’s Gateway programme that provides senior students (year 11 to year 13 plus) with an opportunity to access structured workplace learning. This is funded by the department, but managed by the schools (or a broker) with the proviso that the ‘opportunity’ has a formalised learning arrangement set in the workplace; offers specified knowledge and skills that a student will attain; and specified assessment methods (workplace learning).
The student can visit the specified workplace one day a week for five weeks. Alistair has been involved with this programme with schools in the Whangarei region (his home town). He arranges site visits to select civil contractors – around 30 local companies at the moment.
The process is strict and students are vetted thoroughly, he says.
“Our criteria is simple. The student has to show interest in the industry and have a positive attitude towards reading, writing and attendance. We expect the schools to do the homework on the student to get this far. The programme is not an opportunity to get a student out of their hair for a day because with this negative attitude they wouldn’t last long with us anyway.
“We have a close relationship with the Drug Detection Agency, and before any student is accepted on our Youth Into Industry programme they are drug tested.
“If they are keen, pass the drug test, turn up on time, can do their paperwork and listen, look and learn, then there is no reason why a company wouldn’t be prepared to give these young fellas a go.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that ‘literacy’ has a high priority in the programme.
“Paperwork is an issue for the industry – time sheets, job forms and other things to fill out at the end of the day.
“Students are given worksheets such as a pre-start form for a machine or hazard ID on a worksite. When we go to a company they have to fill out a safety acknowledgement document. This paperwork is to be kept and used later as support material for unit standards.
“If they don’t want to know about paperwork – fine – their choice, but our choice is we don’t want them on the programme.
“And it is also about how they do their paperwork. Mate – if I can’t read it without my glasses, it gets chucked in the rubbish bin and they can start again.”
At the end of five weeks, there is no pressure on either student or contractor to commit to any further relationship, says Alistair.
“If after the end of the experience period the company says to the student ‘we like you, but we would like to try someone else’, or the students want to try another company, then that’s the way it goes.
“If both parties like each other we progress the relationship with a longer period of experience or possibly a casual contract. It’s about relationship building.
“We never guarantee full time work, but over the past two years most of our students have gained employment in the industry.”
Can you give us an example?
“Yeah, a year ago, 17-year-old Jake Rouse went to Fulton Hogan and worked in their mechanic’s bay. He enjoyed the experience but wanted to try something else, and Johnny Dickson [Dicksons Transport and Quarries] put his hand up.
“Jake loved the quarry work, they liked him and Johnny offered a full time position. He phoned me up on my cellphone to tell me he now had employment and I could hardly make out what he was saying because he was so excited.
“How cool’s that?
“Then there was Jamie.
“A really nice guy but a bit weak with his reading and writing, although he tried his best. I said to him, look, instead of just being a labourer or driver why don’t you go down to the Tai Poutini Digger School in Cambridge and do a pre-trade course?
“When we first met Jamie his written work looked like a chicken had gone through an ink well. Well, at the digger school he finished 35 unit standards in just six months and his writing skills had improved out of sight.
“When he got back to us we got him a placement to finish off his written work and now he works in Auckland operating machines.”
How far does the programme reach?
“Ages ago we built relationships with high schools in Whangarei and we have stayed in that area while we developed and improved the programme. The local schools have been very supportive, and so have the companies.
“In saying that – most of the companies we are working with are national, and last year the first phase of our programme was put on a bigger scale test at our ‘futuristic’ careers’ day in Auckland held at MOTAT [Museum Of Transport and Technology].”
Around six high schools in the Auckland region selected a total of 31 students from a pool of about 6000, says Alistair.
“If all those students had turned up, it would have been chaotic, so we put the onus on the schools to pre-select the students to our strict criteria.
“I get asked to attend a lot of career expos around the country and I say no. There’s no point in me turning up at a high school and parking my truck and digger outside, because on a fine day most of those students are going to be hanging around outside with me.
“All the pre-selected students who turned up at MOTAT were very suitable. When we gave them paperwork they all took to it eagerly. It was very encouraging. They were so keen they ignored several rain showers and just carried on with the activities.”
The MOTAT trial provided a format for another careers’ day at the Northland Field Days at Dargaville (at the Kaipara Vintage Machinery Club’s site) last month. Some 32 high school students from the Kaipara, Whangarei, Lower Far North and Rodney Districts were selected. Northland Field Days already offered Northland’s youth scholarships to study agriculture, so the ‘Youth Into Industry’ initiative proved a perfect fit. This style of careers day can be implemented anywhere around the country, says Alistair.
What are you asking from the industry?
“It’s no good going on about an aging workforce without a plan. We all know it is a problem – what’s the solution?
“Most young students have no idea of the scale of our industry or its opportunities and I think it is appalling that our industry is not promoted professionally at schools. Handing out a pretty brochure about civil contracting at careers’ days, I believe, doesn’t cut it.
“If a student does put their hand up to say – yes, I am interested – then what is the next step?
“We are asking companies to provide the opportunity for these students to get out on their sites. Afterall, we are promoting the industry as a professional career path and we know they are keen to step up to the mark.”
Isn’t there recruitment infrastructure already in place?
“What I hear from some industry quarters is that youth training is not their core business. I also think training and recruiting agencies pick the low hanging fruit because they have to make a profit, and the ‘already employed’ appear to be their main target.
“Nobody is going to give an inexperienced school leaver a full time job – those days are long gone. There has to be a go-between to make the introduction and be responsible for communicating with both the pre-employment youth market and the industry.
“We all have a role to play and we shouldn’t be wasting time. I get frustrated with all the talk and limited action, and I believe our programme has done a good job at making a start through school and career days with a targeted approach.
“So, I would like to see civil contracting companies, the IT0, and the education side lend more support to the programme. We all benefit, and we can work together.”