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Speech

Youth Skills Olympics National Finals

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 4 March 1997
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Sir John, Mr Fraser, Board Members, competitors, judges, sponsors, everyone involved in the Youth Skills Olympics.

It is a privilege to be invited to share this Award Ceremony with you; just as it was so interesting and so stimulating to go to the Expo Centre on Sunday and see many of you at work.

The Youth Skills Olympics this year have come at a very appropriate time: over the last few days, the newspapers have been giving a lot of publicity to a very different youth skill - I suppose you could call it a skill - tagging. Tonight should, and I hope will, give the newspapers much scope to publicise true skills, and to emphasise the range and the depth of talent that young New Zealanders have, and that you finalists have been demonstrating so skilfully over these last few days.

The taggers though, have something to teach us. For surely they represent the non-achievers; those who have not learnt how essential it is to develop true skills and how satisfying it is to use those skills for their own betterment, and for the well-being of the community. Instead, they find their satisfaction in defacing our public spaces, in creating ugliness wherever they go, in putting their neighbours to great expense in obliterating their workmanship.

The taggers can teach us by a sort of negative example that self-esteem comes from creating something that people appreciate and value.

The poet John Milton, referring to one of the Parables in the New Testament, spoke about "that one talent that is death to hide." The message is that we all have talent, there is something we can all do, and can do well, and it is our obligation - you can regard it as a personal or a social or a religious obligation, or all three - it is our obligation to realise what that talent is, and then to nurture it, to develop it and to use it. If we don't, life remains unfulfilled. As someone once wrote, people who do not know what they are good at, will not be sure what they are good for.

Of course, you competitors in the Youth Skills Olympics are aware of this. You've proved that by entering this competition. But it doesn't do any harm to remember that quite a lot of your contemporaries are not aware of it.

For example, let's look for a moment at some unemployment statistics. In the December 1996 quarter, youth unemployment (people between 15 and 24 years of age), accounted for nearly 40 % of total unemployment. For 15 to 19 year olds, their unemployment rate is almost three time higher than the average overall rate. Maori and Pacific Islands people are particularly disadvantaged. No specific figures are available but, because general unemployment rates among Maori are three times higher than among Pakeha, and because Maori have a greater proportion of young people than Pakeha, the effects of high unemployment rates amongst young people certainly impact more heavily. It is a tragedy that in this land that the early settlers thought to be, and still ought to be, a land of limitless opportunity, there should be so many apparently without opportunity.

Of course, there are many reasons why young people are unemployed. But it's beyond doubt that one reason is that they - or their parents - have simply not understood that in this modern world, skills are essential: not optional, essential. I think it's also important for employers to accept some responsibility here , a responsibility to employ, to train, and at times to endure; and to consider very carefully the human and social costs that can result from continuing gains in efficiency and productivity.

And so all praise to the sponsors of this competition, for in encouraging youth skills across a broad range of trades and crafts, you are helping to ensure that New Zealand's future will be a sound one. The record of previous winners is impressive. Our competitors hold their place among the world's best. The opportunity to test their skills against those of young people from around the world is extraordinarily valuable; while the example, the role model, the competitors provide for those here at home is hugely influential.

I was especially taken by the competitor who gained a bronze medal for industrial electronics in 1989 and who now runs three companies, including one that installed equipment on the Whitbread yacht, New Zealand Endeavour. Perhaps he took the advice of a writer who said that by working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss - and work twelve hours a day.

What particularly impresses me is the diversity of the skills in this competition. Some are traditional, some very new-fangled - but everyone has been using up-to-the-minute technology. This blending of the old and the new is exciting and challenging. So is the fact that, particularly thanks to new technologies, the gender barriers in the trades and crafts are being overcome.

I'm sure many of us have sometimes wondered what work skills are going to be in demand in the years ahead, into the 21st century. What jobs will New Zealand offer young people in the future, or today's young people as they grow older?

What value - to choose one popular field - what value is the workplace of the future going to place on "computer skills," however those might be defined, as opposed to more traditional skills?

We hear all the time that the world is entering "an information era." It's a vague term, "information era," or "information age," but its very vagueness is said to recognise that the outcomes of this coming revolution are, by definition, unpredictable. Yet there does seem to be a general understanding that the economies of the future are going to be dominated by knowledge workers.

There is a trap however, in the equation that "information equals knowledge equals wealth." The trap, the mistake to be avoided, is that we could focus so much on coming changes, that we ignore certain things about working life that are actually going to stay very much the same, exactly as they have been for hundreds of years.

We should remember that an "information era" is not going to usher in a completely information-based economy at all; one where we never, actually, have to deal with the physical world, or with other people. For at least a few years into the next millennium - hopefully, a great many - I suggest we will, still, all of us, need to eat actual food, to transport ourselves physically on occasion, to meet others face to face, and to live in real, not virtual, houses.

So, certain things about life in general, and working life in particular, will not change. And amongst those 'certain things,' are sure to be those skills represented in these Youth Skills Olympics - even skills whose origins are hundreds of years in the past: skills such as bricklaying, carpentry and metalwork.

And while we can expect the routine processing of information to take place with extraordinary swiftness, efficiency and usefulness, I doubt whether the common sense skills of industrial electronics and wiring, or sheetmetal fabrication, or garment technology, or jewellery making, or any other of the 24 skill categories being recognised here this evening, will be at all readily-imparted to robots. What would women think of a robot hairdresser? And would men really believe, deep down, in the competence of android automotive mechanics?

In other words, those with the skills needed to compete in the Youth Skills Olympics have little to worry about in the workplaces of the future. What is more, true competence in any of the categories is certain to be both self-rewarding and enriching, in more than a single sense of either of those terms.

That is because, as I've already tried to say, mastery of any discipline always lifts our self-esteem, as well as our economic prospects. People who have a solidly-based sense of their own worth, their own ability to be of service to others, are simply better to live with: they are better, more productive, more fulfilled, happier citizens.

So, my congratulations to all those responsible for this competition. I hope that the efforts and activities of Youth Skills New Zealand come to be recognised more fully, as the Trust makes a splendid difference to the lives of young New Zealanders entering the workforce, today, tomorrow and the days after tomorrow.

And most particularly, my congratulations to all who have taken part in the competition. The important thing is to have taken part, to have had the confidence and the skills and the determination to have taken part. There can only be a few winners, and to them, my warmest applause. Those who are to go to Switzerland will have a well-deserved sense of achievement and pride. We are all confident that you will be grand ambassadors for New Zealand; and we all wish you every success.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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