Youth unemployment problem solved by motorcycling Mayor of Otorohanga

Youth unemployment problem solved by motorcycling Mayor of Otorohanga

Sporting a blue t-shirt inscribed with 'London, New York, Sydney, Otorohanga', Dale Williams, Mayor of Otorohanga, wears his heart on his sleeve. Earlier this year he inked a detailed tattoo representing his district on the sleeve of his left arm.

Williams heads Mayor Taskforce for Jobs. Their vision is “Zero waste of youth” – that all young people under the age of 25 should be engaged in appropriate education, training, work or positive activities in their communities.

The national ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) rate for people aged 15-24 is 13.1 percent. That equates to more than 84,000 youth nationally.

Otorohanga no longer has a youth unemployment problem.

Mayor Williams, who zips around the country on his Harley spreading the good news and growing support for the cause, retired ten years ago from the motorcycle industry, and not long after that he became Mayor of Otorohanga. Just before his first Christmas as Mayor there were two youth suicides, totally unrelated, devastating the small King Country town. Williams then embarked on a mission to get inside the minds of the youth in his community.

I was recently invited by Su Cammell, Project Manager for Industrial Symbiosis Kawerau, to attend a Training Seminar in Kawerau that would bring together various heads of local industry. The Bay of Plenty town has abundant and sustainable resources and the industry people I have met so far show real passion in meeting the challenges of a renewable, low carbon future. But historically, Kawerau has a checkered past, and it’s going to take more than a great location to create a great industry. The objective of the seminar I attended was to identify problems, break down barriers, encourage employment and inspire local youth.

The Mayor Taskforce began in the year 2000 with six mayors. Now every mayor is on board. There is a MOU with Government and a direct link to Minister Steven Joyce who is intending to create an action plan based on clear intelligence.

Young people do not want to feel trapped, says Williams. They want opportunities, jobs and bright futures. Williams soon realised there was a drastic mismatch between the local industry and the jobs youth were being trained for. The town set up their own careers event, with only local industry, and nobody on the stand over 30 years of age. Williams approached Wintec about setting up in Otorohanga, and after much debate they agreed, but only if local companies would guarantee employment.

But the courses they were offering were all wrong for the town, so they changed everything and started with the employers and worked backwards. Says Williams, “We’re four years into the recession and every graduate gets a job.”

Mentoring and study support plays a huge role in their fantastic success rate. Ray Haley, the apprentice support coordinator, plays the ‘Camp Mother’ role and after nine years the statistics show that the average length of support relationship is four to six months. Adds Williams, “Nationally only 35 percent of trades students finish. With Ray, 96 percent complete in time. The other four percent are the kids that leave the trade or the country.”

Otorohanga boasts single figure registered unemployment for under 25 year olds since November 2006, consistently lowest in New Zealand. Stable, profitable local businesses now have access to industry ready and community supported young workers.

There are 12 youth programmes being run this year and the Council stays out of it, with only two programmes that receive government funding. When Williams first joined the Council they had an annual budget for cleaning graffiti. They don’t have that in the budget anymore and crime statistics have dropped 75 percent in two years.

Making young people attractive to local companies and vice versa were the seeds of success for Otorohanga. It is a blueprint for the future, and the future is youth.

Dale Williams will be speaking at TEDxAuckland on Saturday August 3, 2013.

Jamie Joseph is blogging at

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