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If you were a student today...

23 April 2014

The world has changed a lot since I was a student and I feel sorry for those who are about to make a career choice that, if not well-considered, could see them facing a huge level of debt and little in the way of job prospects.

There was a time when any university degree would guarantee a job that paid well enough to ensure you could afford to buy a house, a car and start saving for your retirement. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case and there are some graduates who will spend the next decade or more simply paying back their student loans - with little hope of saving enough for a foothold in Auckland's skyrocketing property market.

The traditionally "entry level" degrees such as a BA are now often valued little more than an NCEA pass and more challenging degrees in the sciences may leave you with an even greater debt and even less chance of sustainable employment.

So what would be the best career options for someone about to start their tertiary education?

From the perspective of earnings and surety of employment, perhaps a degree in law or accountancy may be the safe choice.

Sadly, the demand for lawyers seems to continue unabated - perhaps a sad indictment on the ever-increasing complexity associated with bad lawmaking and regulation.

Those in the commercial sector, ranging from humble accountants through MBAs are also in constant demand -- albeit the latter's careers can be short if they stuff up too badly and ruin their CVs with a few failures.

From where I stand, these careers are fine, if you simply want to be in a "service industry".

The future of economic prosperity however, must surely be in careers that involve the creation of "new stuff".

A lawyer may facilitate the process of creating "new stuff" but in itself, this job doesn't actually come up with export-earning products or technologies that will change the world. To do that requires more technical and scientific knowledge and understanding.

Sadly, those who leave our universities with PhDs in the sciences are probably going to be pretty much unemployable at any reasonable salary here in NZ. Sure, if they're prepared to work as a lab technician for a few years and slowly wind their way up the ladder to a role where their hard-earned qualification can be leveraged more effectively then they will find work -- but what a waste!

Just as it seems ridiculous to have qualified doctors driving taxis in this country, simply because they can't afford the extra education and exams required to achieve practicing status here in NZ -- it makes no sense to employ those with expert knowledge to undertake menial tasks on slave-wages in the sciences.

The real problem we face is that we have very little in the way of true science and technology industry in this country and that means we have little in the way of employment to offer those who have the most potential to turn this country around.

Even a million extra lawyers or accountants won't make a jot of difference to NZ's export earnings or our balance of trade figures -- but a few thousand highly qualified scientists and technologists could produce a massive surge in such earnings -- if we had the infrastructure to provide them with work.

Although we like to think of ourselves as being one of the world's leading food producers and therefore in control of a very safe and lucrative market -- the reality is that we are in a very vulnerable and fragile position. Disease, pest or natural disaster could devastate our food production capabilities in the blink of an eye -- leaving us with no way to earn a living within the global community.

It amazes me that those steering the good ship NZ have for so long, chosen to ignore the icebergs of disaster that we slide past on a regular basis. Instead of ensuring we have some sound life rafts, built by creating solid technology-based industries that are immune to to the risk factors that could devastate our primary production, we prefer to sail on with only crossed fingers to protect us from the inevitable.

And yes, it is inevitable. It's not a matter of "if" our key primary industries will be crippled by pest, disease or natural disaster -- it's a matter of "when".

Unfortunately, until such time as we appreciate the value that our science and technology graduates represent to this country, we will always be just a disaster away from economic devastation.

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