August 9, 2014

New Zealand agricultural education. 8. Better ways needed for future learning

 By Dr Clive Dalton

Challenges that need to be faced - and fixed immediately

Challenge 1.
With the current poor public and media image of farmers as employers – how are we going to get farmers to take an interest in demanding employees with qualifications, and pay them adequately for them, especially if farmers have never had any formal training?  
 Also how are we going to get farmers to contribute to training of staff as they pay half the cost and the other half is provided by government. So where you see 'no fees' somebody pays. The farmer may recoup their contribution from the trainee.
 Few if any employers at present pay bonuses for qualifications, and some don’t even pay the minimum wage for hours worked, although this is being remedied. There will always be a large pool of immigrant labour prepared to work for low wages and poor conditions so why bother about trained staff?
It’s a supply and demand situation.  Poor employers (who are said to be the minority) will always get poor labour, which presumably reflect in their costs and profit.  So if they are prepared to carry on like that, that’s their choice and nobody can do anything to change it – other than the banks beign less keen to lend them money.  This may be a telling factor for change, especially when profit margins narrow.
Top employers seeking top performance will see the benefit of hiring qualified staff and paying them for their qualifications.  The word hopefully would soon get around about who to work for, and who to avoid.  Good employers in the past have always had a waiting list of staff, and they need the publicity and promotion, and not those at the bottom end.

Helen Kelley, current President of the CTU commenting on the lack of trained farm staff said that only 50% of farmers currently are willing to pay for staff training.

Challenge 2. 
Would employers provide time during work hours for staff to do course work, and attend mentoring/training sessions when needed?
Top employers seeking top performance would surely see the benefit of meeting the needs of staff.  The sooner staff completed their learning units, then the sooner the farm business would see the benefits – and they will be more keen to stay on, saving the enormous cost of annual hiring and firing of staff.  Current costs of staff changes on a dairy farm can be anything from $2000 to $3000 per employee.
But this would need the current time limit imposed on completing NZQA Units would have to be abolished. If learners are smart enough to complete the required Units in a short time, then all to the good, and they shoud be encouraged to keep moving on.

Challenge 3. 
Who will drive the urgent changes needed in increased training for primary industry to meet the 2025 targets?
The PrimaryITO is the obvious organisation to take control over all training based on NZQA Units.  If they need more power, then the government should provide it urgently, and especially for increased Information Technology to achieve their targets.

All the old excess bureaucracy and red tape needs to be rooted out.  Here are some key points from a former MAF colleague about her recent experience when teaching NZQA farming Units for a provider in the North Island. It says it all, and from my experience, I can support every word.  The amount of paperwork required by the old Waikato AgITO drove us in the Waikato Polytech agricultural department to despair - and we needed to hire another office staff member to handle it. 

Comments from a former colleague who has just quit teaching 
I've given up Ag teaching as I found the hierarchy was more concerned with completing paper work and justifying their funding, than with what or how, (or even if), I was teaching the students. 
A field trip required authority from a superior in triplicate, with license numbers of any drivers and assurance that the vehicles had current WoF and registration. Even if we just went down the road to measure the grass in the paddock, or dig a hole to look at soil profile and earthworms.
·      It was compulsory for me to attend a two-day workshop/seminar/lecture, which involved learning from an ‘expert’ how to do a lesson plan, writing goals and objectives, and session reviews etc. 
·      We then had to submit a lesson plan for each and every session we taught, and a session review complete with all examples of where we incorporated 'literacy and numeracy' into the lesson If we didn't do this we wouldn't be paid! 
·      As far as listing every example of literacy and numeracy enhancement - I had to spell everything for these guys anyway, teach them how to multiply by 100, convert acres to hectares, calculate Dry Matter in a bale of hay, and do this ALL THE TIME! 
·      I think that the people who have managed successfully to get on the bandwagon, are talented at getting funding and filling in the paperwork required by the government. And they have people who know how to copy tonnes of paperwork for you to fill in, or hand out.
·      As for the resource material we were issued with, I started commenting on spelling errors, errors of fact, and ridiculous requirements in the ‘assessments’. 

One unit on wool had a respectable resource handout, but the assessment questions appeared to have been written by somebody who may have had English as a second language. Qualified staff at the local wool store were appalled at the questions in the assessment, and the 'required' answers.
·      I didn't have anything to do with the practical side of the training, since that was left up to their bosses, and unfortunately some of them really didn't take their teaching responsibly very seriously at all.
·      The best thing that came out these 'lecture' situations was providing a great place for people to meet and share ideas, compare theories and methods of doing things.

Challenge 4. 
Will learners on farms have access to suitable computing power and fast Internet access to meet their learning needs?
Most staff on farms have access to computers but without fast Internet. But it’s got to be (and is becoming) a high government priority.  If computers appear to be expensive to any young learners, ways could easily be found to help finance them by loans or sponsorship.  But with wider access and use of the Cloud, computer size won’t be a problem.  Portable devices will be the best option for learners, as they could take them to group sessions, and be independent of the farm computer.

Challenge 5. 
How will the massive problem of young folk leaving school with literacy/numeracy/dyslexia problems be fixed? 
The technical information required by those in Primary industry increases daily, so literacy/numeracy problems will have an increasing negative effect on farm exports and profits.

This won’t be fixed by 2025, based on the current political and educational climate. So right up to 2025 at least 40% of young entrants to primary industry will still be unable to read technical information effectively. There is little or no sign of those producing technical information taking this situation into account in the material they produce.

If the problem was fixable, it would have been fixed by now, as its been recognised for recent decades or longer. And it’s not just farming’s problem - it’s a problem for all NZ industries.

But the good news is that it probably doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past, as using computers which can deliver more support and better results than many teachers currently can – especially for learners those with literacy/numeracy problems.  For proof of this, check out Sugata Mitra’s ‘hole in the wall’ experiment with illiterate kids in India to see how they learned unaided by teachers. 

And there are schools at all levels in New Zealand doing all their work and achieving outstanding results using laptops and tablets with no course textbooks needed. The good news is that computer learning is a fast way around the problem with voice-activated software already available, along with other applications like apps to help dyslexic learners, which read their text aloud to them for checking while typing.

Some help has always been available in schools with 'reading recovery', but the cost/benefit of it has been very questionable.  It's been of no benefit to the thousands who didn't get help as schools had no money or resources to put into the programme.

Polytech and Universities have had reader/ writer support for lectures, but it was never ever enough to help the numbers  needing it, and the learning methods were too slow and costly.  Most adult learners don’t have the time to devote to this kind of support, as jobs and families were always a priority.

Challenge 6.
What about drugs in the workplace?
This is not just the 'elephant in the room' - it's a whole herd of them, and all the solutions your hear about are depressing.  The numbers of addicts seen to increase every day and are highly linked to unemployment. Drugs clearly are used to take the mental and physical pain away.  

This problem is going to get worse among young folk, who through social contact and social media are in contact every minute of they day.  Employers in all rural industries will have to introduce compulsory drug testing, which is common practice in most employment contracts.

This could reduce the number of young folk coming into the industry, and take out many who are already employed. 

As far as 2025 is concerned - things will be worse by then rather than better with  New Zealand already in the top rank of world drug users, .

Challenge 7.
Who is going to get things moving?
The Primary ITO is the obvious organisation to take total control of all primary` industry learning needs, and make all providers work under their direction.  Otherwise the current confusion and waste of money and resources will remain.

The PrimaryITO is already set up to cover the different NZQA Units, and all that’s needed would be for some smart IT people to put the whole thing on the cloud to be accessible by all who wanted training.   

High schools are the obvious place to start to promote primary industry and the science behind everything that goes in the industry.  I used to point out to my students that milking a cow involved chemistry, physics and maths!

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