Labour’s last-minute policy update: ICT apprenticeships to bump up skills

Also talk of ICT mentoring for SMEs and lower broadband costs

With just two days to go before the election, Labour has come up with an updated ICT policy. Although much of it repeats earlier promises of a fast broadband network that will reach most New Zealanders it also focuses on skills development — with the aid of an ICT apprenticeship scheme.

There is also talk of mentoring smaller Kiwi businesses to improve their ICT skills, with a view to increasing productivity. To further lift business productivity, which lags in New Zealand, the new policy also talks of lowering the cost of international broadband connections. This would be achieved with the aid of the planned second trans-Tasman undersea cable, which is being opened to competitive tender with the promise of a $15 million injection of funds from the government.

Schools are also targeted under a promised expansion of free and low-cost internet access — through school-based ICT programmes, the Computers in Homes project and the Aotearoa People’s Network, and KAREN (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network). The latter provides high-speed connections between schools, academia, wananga (Maori tertiary education) and libraries, etcetera.

This comes in the wake of National’s promise yesterday of $150 million in broadband funding for schools, to ensure their computer systems are equipped to make the most of faster broadband.

Labour’s promises to pilot an ICT apprenticeship scheme, which would be an add-on to its trade-based Modern Apprenticeship scheme, which, Labour says, has seen apprenticeship numbers climb from 81,000 in 2000 to 190,000 this year. It sees the inclusion of ICT “as an opportunity to fill a gap in the training needs of New Zealanders… as the scope of ICT training is currently quite limited.”

Mentoring of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) — which make up 97% of all Kiwi businesses — is a novel suggestion, but is not fleshed-out, other than Labour saying it wants SMEs to be able to “employ and train tech-savvy staff” so they can leverage technology to compete internationally and be more efficient.

A lot of the updated ICT policy announcement focuses on broadband initiatives. Specifically, a promise to bring forward some of the spending of the previously announced $500 million (over five years) earmarked for fast broadband “if regions are in need of additional economic stimulus”.

The spend would come from the BIF (Broadband Investment Fund) set up earlier this year and would fund any necessary “acceptable proposals”. However, this might prove difficult as, in a last-minute announcement, Labour said BIF applications had been greatly oversubscribed.

Labour promises that 80% of Kiwis will have 20Mbit/s broadband by 2012 and 90% will have a minimum 10Mbit/s service. It also boasts that, according to OECD figures, New Zealand had the sixth-fastest growth in broadband uptake last year. Its aim is that New Zealanders be able to access broadband “no matter where they live”.

Lastly, the updated policy beefs up those all-important Green credentials by promoting telecommunications as a way of making New Zealand more sustainable, by encouraging a modest increase in teleworking — enough to reduce home-to-work car trips by 5% by 2012. It sees increased use of video-conferencing and online working achieving this.

Computerworld contacted industry commentators for their views but they have yet to reply.

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