(Image: Archi Banal with Getty Images)
(Image: Archi Banal with Getty Images)

PartnersOctober 25, 2023

A case for the simple, crucial need to upskill

(Image: Archi Banal with Getty Images)
(Image: Archi Banal with Getty Images)

Tertiary education is often associated with long-term study, but what’s out there for people wanting to upskill without the huge time and financial commitments?

In a small town called Winton, not too far from Invercargill, Jess Craig has been on an unconventional journey to becoming Aquila Sustainable Farming’s general manager. Coming from the UK, where she’d worked on managing criminal justice projects, she joined Aquila (thanks to “a few transferable skills”) as policy and planning manager in 2017. Three years later, prompted by the company’s chairman to put her hand up for the role, Craig was named Aquila’s new general manager; responsible for the biggest organic dairy portfolio in Aotearoa.

While her previous role at Aquila had already equipped her with knowledge of the business’s structure, its people, and many of the ins-and-outs of dairy farming, what it hadn’t quite prepared her for was the new set of challenges that would come along with being the GM. 

Rapid innovation in technology and the disruptions brought about by the pandemic have changed both how we work, and the job market itself. Now, the need for frequent upskilling to keep up with these changes is putting pressure on workers and employees, with this pressure creating opportunities for people like Craig to further their careers. For Craig, the GM job was a new form of leadership role, and she wanted to tackle this with as many tools in her belt as possible.

Leadership and business strategy, in the formal sense, were “all quite new to me at the time”, Craig recalls. “I didn’t have that experience and I really needed to learn quite quickly. And while I’d like to have done an MBA, I just didn’t have the time, energy or resources to dedicate to that. So I started looking at other ways I could fit in some [professional development], which is where the University of Auckland Business School came in.”

Starting with a course on strategic planning in 2021, Craig has since gone on to complete a total of four short courses offered by the University of Auckland Business School’s Executive and Professional Development (EPD) team. Delivered in a tertiary education setting without the need for long-term commitments to a qualification or degree, EPD courses – which normally last around two days – give those like Craig the ability to continue to work, learn on the job, and “fill in the gaps” where they’re needed the most. 

“One of the biggest learnings for me was from the Leading Through Influence course where I was able to learn about my own style of learning and how to leverage off that when I see other people getting frustrated because I just don’t get something.”

Rachel Wright, the director of EPD at the University of Auckland Business School, says their range of short courses are about encouraging lifelong learning, upskilling people at all stages of their career to become better leaders, managers and community members.

“No matter what job you’re in, you’re going to need to upskill in some capacity roughly every five or so years, to essentially future proof yourself for what’s ahead… Lifelong learning is about keeping up to speed, future proofing yourself and your career as you navigate the world of work,” says Wright.

Rachel Wright and Jolyon Allen from the UABS Executive and Professional Development team (Images: Supplied)

The short courses also allow participants a taste of study that prompts some to go on to further education, such as masters’ programmes, says Wright. 

“Short courses are a really good way to learn and just come back into a university experience and see if it’s something for you. It’s a way to just sort of break down those barriers. There’s a whole lot of things you can do online now: degrees at Auckland Uni online, which fit around your personal life.”

Craig’s one of the thousands of people yearly in Aotearoa who engage in professional development to build upon their years of career experience. For her, the ability to complete these short courses without having to return to full-time study has allowed her to put her new skills to use quickly, in practical ways, at Aquila.

“It’s been quite game changing [at work], actually, because I learnt [through the short course] I can be really open and say: ‘Hang on, this isn’t about you. This is about me needing to understand. So can you help me visualise that and just be really clear about what it’s about? Because the reason why you’re frustrated is that I’m not understanding the way that you’re delivering it. So let’s work on that.'”

(Image: Getty Images; additional design: Tina Tiller)

Working in a heavily technology-dependent industry, Alec Martin knows the importance of anticipating and acknowledging change. So when he took on the role of IT manager at Rotorua Area Primary Health Services (RAPHS) just over a year ago, he welcomed the idea from his HR department of taking on the University of Auckland Business School’s two-day Management Essentials course – a programme specifically designed for those newly promoted or heading towards management positions.

“I wanted to make sure I ticked all the boxes as a manager,” explains Martin. “I think it’s good to take time to just touch base with the reality of what you’re actually doing… to step back and realise that you’re managing real people.” 

The facilitator of the Management Essentials course, Jolyon Allen, wants his students to leave the two-day course with not only a better toolkit to deploy in their careers, but a better understanding of what good leadership and management means as “two hats: sometimes a person has to lead, other times they need to manage”.

“The theory about leadership can be taught in a classroom, but being a leader requires the opportunity to step into a leadership role, the confidence to take the step, and the support and guidance from the organisation,” says Allen.

Darren Elmore, GM of service at digital technologies and services company Ricoh, also stresses the importance of getting into something “a little more disruptive to your everyday role”. Late last year, he signed up for Transitioning to C-Suite, the 12-week flagship leadership programme offered by the Executive and Professional Development team – a course consisting of in-person workshops, online modules and executive peer coaching sessions, designed for those aspiring to executive-level responsibilities.

“I was looking for an understanding of the things that I was missing, and how to bridge some of those gaps,” explains Elmore. “A big challenge that leaders face right now is not really understanding what the future holds for us any more. Going back just 20 years or so, you almost knew what things were going to look like. But in the last few years, it’s been really difficult to get that level of certainty.”

Elmore says that one of the most memorable things he learnt from the programme that he’s since applied to his own work is the ability to think with a “both/and” mindset. “Naturally as humans, our psychology is about choices,”  he elaborates. “We like ‘either/or’. But what I’ve learnt is that we can choose to do both X and Y together, and the value might be greater than doing just one or the other.”

(Illustration: Gary Venn)

In addition to the benefit of practical learning, participants in the Business School’s EPD programmes agree that one of the most valuable aspects of undertaking a professional development course has been the opportunity to meet new professional contacts – and even potential mentors.

“It was definitely a good networking opportunity,” says Martin. “It was a really positive environment and the facilitator was really good at making it a safe space. No one felt shy or felt like they couldn’t talk.”

Aquila’s Jess Craig echoes this sentiment: “You meet really good like-minded people who are all there because they want to be. No one’s forcing them to be there which is a real subtle but key difference in the quality of other participants that you get. And generally they’re all experienced in the same issues as you are.”

Those drawn to these courses are often people looking to enter the next level of their career, or to gain more competence and confidence in their current role – and the students’ diversity of experience offers valuable learning beyond the coursework itself.

Allen says all kinds of students enter his Management Essentials course, and this helps to add to the richness of the learning experience for all.

“People who are preparing to step into a management role, recently promoted managers seeking new skills and frameworks, managers who are younger or less experienced than the teams they are leading… The courses give participants opportunities to network and learn about other career paths.”

Elmore says he found value in the C-suite programme’s participants coming from different backgrounds, industries and geographic locations. “Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone from outside your organisation to discuss these things with, so having that external person to talk through ideas and bounce things off has been a really valuable outcome as well,” he says.

That value, he says, was also evident when it came to the programme’s mentors and the variety of speakers on offer, who were “very willing for you to reach out to them if you were stuck with a problem”.

“They can see the path that you’re trying to take and offer some really sound advice on some of the things they’ve done to help them progress.”

For each of these participants, the more casual study option of a shorter course not only allows them to reach new heights in their careers, but to create invaluable connections with peers and facilitators that last far longer than the programme itself.  

For Wright and the EPD course facilitators, that connection and shared knowledge within the classroom is one of the most important aspects of the various short courses and programmes on offer, connections that students can take with them, to continue that lifelong learning when they leave.

“As a facilitator said last week, ‘collectively, everybody in this room knows more than I do, so we’re going to learn from me and from each other’. And that’s the difference about these classes.”

Keep going!