The students returning to study to reinvent their careers (with The Spinoff)

This article was written by India Hendrikse for The Spinoff. You can view the original article on The Spinoff website.

Photographs of five students at The Mind Lab
OUR FIVE GRADS (L-R) GRANT RHIND, KELLY RUMMINS, NYKKIE GIBSON, SARAH WILLIAMS, AND CARMEN BLACKLER (IMAGE: TINA TILLER)

We’ve long been led to believe that careers work like a ladder: you keep climbing until you reach the top. But these days a linear route upward is becoming increasingly rare. Technology is changing rapidly, social norms are being reinvented, and jobs that used to exist no longer do. Essential today could be redundant tomorrow, and unheard of now could be the next big thing. The evolution of the job market is inevitable and happening now, and we need the necessary skills to adapt, reinvent and ultimately thrive. 

New Zealand tertiary education institutions The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, created by education futurist Frances Valintine, exist to upskill New Zealanders without uprooting them from employment. It’s part-time study, made for folk who want to adapt to change and advance their existing established career. 

“It’s about having purpose-driven programmes that ensure Kiwis are equipped for the future,” says the institutions’ general manager, Fiona Webby. 

To stay ahead of the game, The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab reject prescriptive theory-based curriculum models, and instead have industry leaders guest speak and set the pace. Most of the course content is taught online through workshops and group work, making the programmes suitable for an ever-growing remote workforce and those continuing to work while studying. 

“We know that the world is moving so quickly, so we’re always tweaking our programmes,” says Webby. “If we can’t learn and always pivot and change, then it means our students won’t be up to speed with the best knowledge and skills for them to move forward in their context.”

The Spinoff spoke to five graduates and students from across The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab programmes to find out how studying reinvented their lives and careers.

Kelly Rummins: Upcoming graduate of Tech Futures Lab postgraduate certificate in Connected Environments

KELLY RUMMINS (IMAGE: TINA TILLER/SUPPLIED)

Imagine coming home from work, opening an app on your phone, and seeing exactly what birds were hanging out in your garden all day: a tūī who pops by in the morning, or a pīwakawaka making a visit after lunch. Kelly Rummins, a student at Tech Futures Lab postgraduate certificate in Connected Environments, wants to change how urban-dwellers connect with nature. Her goal is to build an Internet of Things (IoT) programme that connects people with local birdlife, encouraging citizen science and environmentalism through data tracking.

“The course made it really clear in my mind that I wanted to be in the space of sustainability and use technology for good,” says the Auckland-based 37-year-old, who previously worked in market research. 

Rummins says the certificate – which she chose in order to put her passion for sustainability to work – helped her make a career pivot which her to a new role with an earth observation company.

“Working for a company where the business is about the environment and improving it is really awesome,” she says. 

“To date, my positive environmental impact has just been limited to myself, what I can do in my neighbourhood and with my family. One of the things the course did was ask ‘how can I do more than that?’”

Whilst Rummins’ prototype build is still a side project, the Connected Environments certificate helped her realise her market analysis skills could be applied to the tech world. Surrounded by students with a diverse range of professional backgrounds, she learned how her existing knowledge and skills could be applied to a space she was passionate about. 

“Because everyone has come from different backgrounds, what was really interesting was to be with a group of people with really different strengths,” she says. “It made me realise that I do have a lot of value to give to this space and it may not always be in the technical, but that my strengths play equally as well into the technology space.”

Grant Rhind: Graduate of The Mind Lab Digital Skills For The Workplace micro-credential

GRANT RHIND (IMAGE: TINA TILLER/SUPPLIED)

Grant Rhind’s family have farmed their land in the Waikato for generations. After his dairy farmer dad died last year it was time for his family to reconfigure how they managed that land. 

“There was a discussion around what we do with 500 acres of really pristine, beautiful land,” says Auckland-based Rhind. The family were keen to diversify the revenues the farm brought to their iwi, and the easily accessible spot in Waitakaruru in the Waikato, combined with an excellent water source, made it a great candidate for different crops.

To help his iwi, Ngāti Pāoa, develop the whenua, Rhind took The Mind Lab’s Digital Skills For The Workplace micro-credential to learn online the expertise that would help them monetise the land. But he soon realised the programme had pointers for his day job, too.

“It wasn’t until a little way through the programme that I thought it could help me out in my main role as well, and that’s in aviation,” says 47-year-old Rhind, who spent time in the air force before joining DHL as head of training and checking at Tasman Cargo Airlines. 

In response to the setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, The Mind Lab is offering the course free of charge to all New Zealanders. Its purpose is to help people build digital skills and bring new technologies and innovation into their work at a moment when those skills are more important than ever.

“Beforehand I was really just Gmail and SMS. But every week we were getting introduced to a new application or a new program and it was a real eye-opener. The project management apps that they chose are ones I use at work now,” he says. 

Nykkie Gibson: Graduate of Tech Futures Lab postgraduate certificate in Human Potential 

Last year, Nykkie Gibson was meant to move to Europe with her husband and daughter. She hadn’t been loving her job in HR, and she hoped travelling would bring about an epiphany. But then the pandemic hit. 

It turns out her plan B was ready and waiting for her. She started the postgraduate certificate in Human Potential at Tech Futures Lab, and things fell into place. 

“It happened to be the right thing for me, at the right time,” the 43-year-old says.  “At the end of last year, I probably ended up in a much stronger position than if we’d gone away, in terms of having a really good sense of self, what’s important to me, and having more ideas about what I want to do from a work perspective.”

Since graduating, Gibson has started prototyping her own programme for people to design their lives with intentionality, taking cues from the lessons from Tech Futures Lab and the “design thinking” books it led her to. She did a trial of her programme with a group of women for six months, and wants to turn it into a bigger idea. 

“I coached them through really getting clarity on what’s most important in their lives, and what that means in terms of what their life could look like,” she says.

As part of her day job, Gibson speaks to a lot of people going through redundancies. This is called outplacement, and it’s Gibson’s role to help anxious ex-employees course-correct. She sees a lot of people who are in their 50s who have been in the same job for many years and never expected to be unemployed. But careers are a lot more unpredictable than they used to be, and Gibson thinks employers have a responsibility to help their staff adapt. 

“Rather than the outplacement, which is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, employers should be giving their people this opportunity where they’re employed and things are good and they don’t need to be worried about where their next pay cheque is coming from.”

To help people find their potential, Gibson hopes to grow her platform in the future, with a vision of creating an app that offers skills for people to thrive in an increasingly digitalised world.

”It’s all about helping people tap into understanding themselves better,” she says. 

Sarah Williams: Upcoming graduate of The Mind Lab postgraduate certificate in Leading Change For Good

SARAH WILLIAMS (IMAGE: TINA TILLER/SUPPLIED)

“Trying to get a big company to explore new ways of doing things is really hard,” says Sarah Williams, innovation and improvement lead at Contact Energy’s subsidiary, Simply Energy. 

“You need to be able to have some sort of transitionary language that I didn’t have. So that was what I was looking for in the course,” says the soon-to-be graduate, reflecting on her choice to study the postgraduate certificate in Leading Change For Good at The Mind Lab. 

Passionate about Aotearoa decarbonising the energy sector, the 44-year-old Taupō resident says her vision, and large motivator towards studying again, was to strengthen Simply Energy’s relationship with its customers. Williams wanted to guide customers towards seeking more sustainable energy sources. And that starts with a meaningful connection.  

“The customers that Simply Energy works with typically use a mix of energy sources, including high carbon such as coal and gas,” she says. “If we want to help our customers move reduce the carbon footprint of their energy needs, we need to have a partnership relationship with them, rather than just a contractual, commercial exchange.”

Williams believes the commitment companies put into their employees cascades into the community. Her new skills and confidence from the course have allowed her to share her passion far beyond her workplace. 

“Being able to take the investment the corporate world has made in me and taking that to community groups is a really neat cycle, it’s closing the loop. It ripples out into the world and has a positive impact on everything that I do. I’ve just been speaking with a primary school this afternoon about ideas that I have. And that’s because of the development I’ve had within the corporate sector.”

The flexibility The Mind Lab qualification offered Williams was another factor in her choice of the course. She’s made great friends out of it, and says being surrounded by future change-makers inspired her.

“Living in the regions and having access to this kind of stuff is massive, it’s really empowering. The cohort, the network of amazing people that are aligned by purpose and values has been huge.”

Carmen Blackler: Graduate of Tech Futures Lab Master of Technological Futures

“The reason why I went to Tech Futures Lab is because although I’d been working in the energy sector for a very long time, I got to the point where I felt we weren’t using technology as much as we could,” says Carmen Blackler, a graduate of the Master of Technological Futures programme. 

“Being an engineer, I like to know how things work. So, I thought that to help my clients, I’d go and upskill to understand what technology was available and how we might apply it to the sector.”

The Wanaka-based 51-year-old initially studied to solve issues in the electrical engineering world, but the course actually led her down an entrepreneurial route. Seeing how difficult it was for seasonal workers to find temporary accommodation away from home, she founded The WAN, a platform that connects workers to people with spare rooms. 

Blackler says her platform proves that to be an innovator, you don’t need to invent new technology. 

“Technology isn’t just about widgets or smart, cool, new things – it’s also about processes and how you apply technology to things. You don’t have to be a genius.”

Through The WAN, she’s identified a problem – seasonal workers facing housing insecurity – and is attempting to solve it. Tech Futures Lab gave Blackler the skills and conviction to turn her vision for solutions into a business. 

“The masters was life-changing. You’re given the opportunity to think more broadly and challenge the status quo, and ask ‘If I could do anything what would I do?’ Which is something that as business people, we don’t do enough of.” 

In a rapidly changing world, every generation of Kiwi workers is going to face brand-new challenges in their careers. With technology comes opportunity, but innovation also necessitates adaptability. Learning can come at any age and stage of life, and fresh ideas and solutions can have a direct impact on jobs and communities, no matter the field of work. 

Studying can course-correct us, refresh our day jobs or take us down new paths. When this happens, as is the case with the programmes The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab offers, it might just reinvigorate our careers and place new rungs on our ladders.

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