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Māori Vocational Guidance – How it came to be

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Alice Taylor
26 January, 2021

One of New Zealand’s war features was the large and ever-growing population of young Māori men and women. Government quickly labelled this group a ‘problem’ that needed to be addressed so that, on leaving school, these young Māori would not become unemployed, but take up what government deemed ‘suitable’ careers. The perceived importance of this issue is reflected in the considerable funding the government allocated to vocational guidance for Māori youth.

This lesser-known aspect of our history will be explored in a series, of which this is the first. This article introduces how this need for vocational guidance arose, and secondly, how the government addressed and tackled the issue through sociological and educational research. The latter point will be broken into two stages. Firstly, the origins and causes of the problem identified by researchers will be outlined, and from this, the Eurocentric narrative of identifying Māori youth as a ‘problem’ will be explored. Finally, we will look at the solutions researchers advocated to address this ‘problem’. Later articles will explore the consequences of these arguments in even greater depth.


What inspired vocational guidance for Māori?

Several contextual aspects inspired investigation of and funding for vocational guidance for Māori.

First, Pākehā did not anticipate the growth in number of young Māori, nor the recovery of the Māori population, which had suffered from introduced European diseases in the previous century. However, they had soon recovered, growing at a fast rate. The author of Vocational Guidance for Maori Youth, H.C. McQueen, wrote in 1945, “the Maori is increasingly with us” and that “The amazing recovery of the Maori population figures since 1896 is well known”.

Second, due to land dispossession, Māori had few resources. A review of McQueen’s book in 1945 shows how this ‘problem’ was interpreted at the time: “The native population of New Zealand is steadily increasing, but there remains a limited amount of land available for it. This is one of the reasons why numbers of young Maoris leaving school at the ages of 14 or 15 have no prospect of work on the land”.

Not only was there an increase in population size, but another demographic shift did not go unnoticed: the movement of Māori from rural to urban spaces, which only continued after the war. In 1936, only 11% of Māori lived in urban areas. By 1951, this increased to 23%. This pattern continued, and in 1956 the majority of Māori, 62%, lived in urban locations.


What happened?

In response the government quickly set about to find ways in they could encourage young Māori into certain jobs once they left school. This task was called ‘vocational guidance’.

The first Māori Vocational Guidance Officer, Kahi Takimoana Harawira (Te Aupōuri), said in 1954 that “the purpose of vocational guidance is to guide that individual to their vocation.”

New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) reports provide a rough timeline of how the government investigated vocational guidance for Māori.

By 1940, NZCER reports indicated awareness of what they called the “Maori problem”. In 1941, the president of the NZCER wrote Pākehā “are still only half aware of the urgency and complexity of the problems that face the Maori people.” He hoped the NZCER sponsored studies “may open the eyes of our people to these internal problems and lead to a satisfactory solution of them”. Interestingly, no information is provided as to what exactly these problems are. Later that year, though, the council noted an investigation which “is concerned with the vocational problems of Maori youth and the possibility of solving them, if only in part, through some scheme of guidance, training and placement. The urgency of these problems is obvious to anyone in touch with Maori affairs”.

 H.C. McQueen had been the NZCER’s research officer and it is likely the investigation described above later appeared in his book, Vocational Guidance for Maori Youth, published in 1945 and subsequently promoted by the NZ Vocational Guidance Association.

McQueen’s project was far bigger than anything undertaken earlier, and was significant as it proposed real solutions. It also brought the issue of vocational guidance for Māori to the wider public.

The 1945 NZCER report summarised McQueen’s book in this way: “the Maori population of NZ is increasing rapidly, and much of it is landless. What is the vocational future of the Maori boys and girls of today? This book, which is based in part on extensive field work, examines the complicated situation in which Maori youth is placed and proposes, among other things, the appointment of special vocational guidance officers for Maoris.”

As this description suggests, McQueen’s book did two key things: it attempted to explain the reasons for the ‘problem’, and set out solutions to address it.


Reasons for the ‘problem’

In addition to a lack of land, McQueen explained that many young Māori were unemployed or were at risk of facing unemployment because of limited educational opportunities.

McQueen writes “the number of Maori boys and girls receiving post primary education is low”, noting the number of high schools in Māori areas were low.

Racism also shaped Māori patterns of employment. A 1945 New Zealand Herald article named the ‘problem’ as Pākehā prejudice. Indeed, McQueen’s “survey under review admits squarely a widespread prejudice against employing Maoris”.

A review of his book notes that McQueen “admits the prevalence among the Maori population of what he describes as a ‘gimme’ attitude. He admits that the high incidence of tuberculosis among them is a limiting factor in employment. He admits the ‘unreliability’ alleged against the Maori worker, but insists that it is both possible to understand the psychological origins and deal with it satisfactorily.” This in itself illuminates the rhetoric of blame vocational guidance echoed.


The solution

McQueen was not the first person to push for vocational guidance for young Māori. In a 1944 New Zealand Herald article, it was advocated that “more vocational guidance officers should be appointed in order to help the Maoris”.

McQueen notes that one advantage of vocational officers would be to combat the resistance of employers to employing Māori youth through working with local organisations.

Secondly, advocating the completion of post primary education, as well as intermingling vocational guidance with schooling, was encouraged. McQueen notes that “if Maori children are to have the same opportunities as pakeha to obtain employment, they must be able to show the same educational qualifications as the pakehas”.

Thirdly, it was deemed essential to have an education system and curriculum that treated Māori and Pākehā equally. A 1945 New Zealand Herald article states there are “no differences in intellectual ability and academic attainment of Maori and Pakeha that share the same educational experience.” Vocational guidance was designed to prepare Māori for the demands of "life in a complex, industrial and pastoral society”.

And lastly, and controversially, the emphasis was on navigating Māori towards employment in certain trades. This included agricultural training. Of the “various fields of employment” “the largest avenue is that of the land. One deficiency in the present schemes under the native department is that very little providing is made for the training of boys in agriculture and the complete lack in the training which is given of any direct relation to the actual taking up of farming by the boys.” “The setting up of special schemes is advocated, and in this connection the establishment of special agricultural schools for Maoris might well be investigated. Afforestation, horticulture, and the development of local industries on a small scale are also examined.”

It is clear that the researchers considered Māori as suited primarily to agricultural work, and that they did not foresee the huge urban migration to come. Harawira, on the other hand, also recommended the role in teaching, office work and nursing for women, and carpenters, motor mechanics, other trades and railways for men.



Māori vocational guidance was an unexpected feature of post war New Zealand. It was inspired by the presence of a large and youthful Māori population that was unanticipated. Vocational guidance was strongly prioritised and heavily funded, to make sure that upon leaving school these Maori would not be unemployed, but rather members of specific parts of the work force.

Sociological and educational research focussed on identifying reasons for what they labelled a ‘problem’, and solutions to address this problem. The labelling of this group as a ‘problem’ is problematic in itself. Solutions that were found included the increased appointment of Maori vocational officers, advocation of completion of education and pushing Māori towards very particular career pathways. This part of New Zealand history is complex, and so much more is left to unpack. Other aspects of this complex story will be explored in the rest of this series.


Image: by John Pascoe, in H.C. McQueen, Vocational Guidance for Maori Youth, Wellington: NZCER, 1945.                                                                                  `


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