The Disconnect

PhD students can’t get jobs and highly skilled graduates are leaving NZ for Auz. The topic of employment and retaining talent has been firing up again lately.

But why are we in this situation? This is a question I’ve never seen raised despite its potential to unveil a solution.

The answer is simple, there is a disconnect. Individuals are being trained in fields where there is no demand for these people.


We (NZ) are oversupplying industries with too many graduates of sport science, law, commerce, education and bio/medscience. Yet there is overwhelmingly high demand for food scientists/ technologists, engineers, digital and IT professionals  (according to a recent study).

But how has this come about? There are three factors that I can identify:


  1. Incentives or promotions of certain fields as careers for students has not changed or is not dynamic enough.
  2. Industries we hoped would develop into a source of great job creation a decade ago have not developed as fast as expected e.g. biotechnology.
  3. Lack of students to (a) foresee where career opportunities are (b) think non- linearly about their career path i.e. not looking for atypical applications of their skill sets that might interest them.

Based on this last point I seldom sympathise with students who leave university and have not spent time planning their career path. You’ve had at least 3 years to analyse the job market and invest your time in developing yourself into an employable (for the NZ environment) individual. Career planning is not an event that takes place every now and then. It is continuous. You need to be attuned to the dynamic changes that are occurring in your industry that may force you  change and adapt.

This aside, there is an unavoidable trade-off that students need to make between entering an area of study that they enjoy versus the availability of jobs in that area. Can it be expected that students sacrifice the former to satisfy the latter? If you want to stay in New Zealand, then yes, there needs to be at least some compromise. If not then New Zealand is not going to have a job for you unless you create it. Hopefully if you do leave New Zealand to follow your passion then you will return someday when such an opportunities arise in NZ for you.

While the government’s incentives to encourage NZ businesses to employ R&D graduates does help get some students into jobs, these programmes are vulnerable to the disconnect; industry wants students that are simply not available.

The only real way to create jobs is to build/ grow industries and for the output of fresh talent to sync with the industries’ demand for it. Obviously this is no short fix.To grow and build industries we need people to lead this change. People like Rod Drury, Ian McCrae, Peter Maire, Sam Morgan, Richard Taylor, Ian Taylor (to name a few) have led this change for the digital and IT industries.

To finish here are my five takeaways:

  1. Give the 18-30s a shake up. Stop expecting things and help create change. Invest in career planning and explore the non-traditional careers which utilise your skills/knowledge gained in tertiary education.
  2. Provide support for those leaders that have already taken it upon themselves to grow their industries. Who are our upcoming Ian McCrae’s in food & beverage, bioscience, tourism?
  3. All incentives that encourage students to pursue certain fields of study need to respond to changes in the labour market more dynamically than they have in the past. Do we really need them in field X?
  4. We all know kiwis are leaving for Auz but who are these kiwis? What skills do they possess? Do we really need them to stay? How many of them return within a year? We know unemployment is getting higher but what do the employed demographic look like? What are their skills? Are we investing in the right areas to get the right short-med term fixes. We need more details.
  5. Back yourself to be a #2.

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* Upon writing this post, this article appeared on the NZ Herald website. I get sick of seeing this stuff. Not because of kiwis leaving NZ but because of that’s all anyone has to say. No details, no solutions, no actions (from any politician or thought leader).



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