New Zealand first MP Ron Mark says without trade and technical training, he could have landed a life behind bars.
Now he is asking for the government to give trade training institutions, like the Southern Institute of Technology, more funding.
In front of a large audience at SIT on Friday, Mark said as a child living in the Wairarapa he was "one of those negative statistics".
"Then I got to secondary school and it pretty much turned to custard."
Mark said he spent more time on the rugby field than in class. "I would wag all my maths classes."
His successful career as a politician flowed from the skills he gained at Porirua Polytech, Mark said.
"When you're not spending so much time chasing after girls and fast cars, your education becomes more important."
Invercargill's homegrown SIT Zero Fees programme teaches some of the most employable skills in the nation, Mark said.
The SIT Zero Fees scheme was backed by the Invercargill community when it was launched in 2001.
The Community Trust of Southland, Invercargill Licensing Trust, Invercargill City Council, Southland District Council and local businesses contributed to the growth of the programme, which now has 1200 students.
"I saw that not all people want to have a bachelor of whatever," Mark said. "New Zealand does not need an army of lawyers."
New Zealand needs more young people learning hands-on skills instead of chasing expensive degrees, Mark said. "That's what we see today in the initiative called Zero Fees."
"Look at how successful the SIT has become and where it's gone."
Southland-based New Zealand First MP Ria Bond is a graduate from the SIT hairdressing course and is New Zealand's newest member of Parliament.
"I would fiercely protect this institute. I'm so proud of the SIT," Bond said.
"The SIT brings people to life." Bond said. "It brought me to life. I then became a business owner."
SIT makes education a lifetime opportunity, Bond said. "You're never too old to get an education."
Amber-Leigh Woolf - The Southland Times 02/10/2015