The Sunday Star wrote the following article about Youth Connections Across Auckland on Sunday 25 January:

CHERIE-LEIGH CRAIG figured out in her final year of school that she wanted to be a chef. The now-19-year-old found part-time work in a cafe, did the Gateway work experience programme, and came top of her year in hospitality. It was her teacher who suggested she apply to be an apprentice chef at SkyCity.

Craig was one of 11 accepted out of 300 applicants. The selection process included a MasterChef- style cook-off in which the applicants had to make doughnuts. ‘‘I was so scared because I’d never made doughnuts before,’’ she says. ‘‘The day I was supposed to get my call, I was a wreck, so nervous.’’

Now in her second year at the casino, hotel and convention centre operator, Craig has gained experience in its five kitchens – butchery, larder, pastry, hot prep and Asian prep. ‘‘The hours are really bad. But it pays off,’’ she says.

Auckland Council would like to see a whole lot more Cherie-Leighs. There are currently 24,200 young Aucklanders not in education, employment or training (NEETs), and the council says that’s a barrier to economic development. NEETs are a bugbear group who nationally represent 11.4 per cent of the working age population.

The council has signed SkyCity and hotel operators Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels Group up to its Youth Employment Pledge initiative. The hospitality companies join Fletcher Building as the first employers to promise to hire more young people as part of the council’s wider Youth Connections programme working with business, youth services and schools to get young people into work. The plan is to sign up 50 employers in total.

Launched two years ago, Youth Connections is based on a programme run in the Waikato town of Otorohanga. Leora Hirsh, Auckland Council’s manager community development and safety, said they were keen to see if the model could work in a big city. ‘In a small town it’s a different concept, the mayor would know a lot of the firms personally and be able to knock on their door and say, ‘could you take on an apprentice’?’’ The council expected its employer partners to provide more jobs and training for young workers as a result of the programme, she said. The involvement of the local authority had more weight than leaving it to the usual recruitment processes. ‘‘If the mayor and business know they’re working together to give young people a chance and build the city, that’s a unique place council can play a role in.’’

SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison said it had been easier in the past to start off in a career. The company had been focusing on youth employment for a while, with involvement in initiatives such as the Best Pasifika Leadership Academy. ‘‘This is very much more of the same,’’ he said. SkyCity hired 1200 new employees last year, 700 of whom were in the food and beverage area, so it had a constant need to replenish. The corporate is currently embroiled in a dispute with the Government over a blowout in the cost of building Auckland’s proposed International Convention Centre, but Morrison strongly denied that signing the Employment Pledge was part of a public relations effort to get Aucklanders onside.

Youth Connections has developed an interactive website soon to be piloted in four South Auckland schools which it hopes will eventually track every school leaver in the region. There was currently no systematic way of knowing what happened to them after they left the school system, Hirsh said. ‘‘If they’re not going into further education or a job, we don’t necessarily know where young people are going.’’

Youth Connections also helps get young jobseekers work-ready, teaching CV writing, organising drivers’ licence training and preparing them for the interview process. A recent survey of Employers and Manufacturers Association members about school leavers’ employability found around a third were unhappy with their literacy, communication and problem solving skills.

Next month, Youth Connections will run its second annual JobFest, which aims to put 50 businesses and 1000 unemployed youth together. To date the programme has led to 850 jobs, including 285 full-time positions and 38 were apprenticeships, it reports.