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Winning over parents to get kids on the tools

If you think there’s a skill shortage in the trades now - just wait. In five or six years things are going to get dire, as a low birth year 16 years ago leaves an even bigger hole in the number of apprentices needed to replace an ageing building workforce. It’s a scenario that the industry is trying to counter with an advertising campaign designed at winning over the parents of young graduates.

The Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) campaign aims to break down prejudices when it comes to which direction their children's careers head. Called "A Tricky Chat", it cleverly skewers a 'coming out' type scenario where a teen admits he wants to be a tradie.

BCITO chief executive Warwick Quinn says a child’s career choice is influenced 80 percent by their parents, and the prevailing attitude is still that the best career is one that starts at university. He wants to change that, pointing out that it’s no longer the case that at the end of a career the worker with a degree has earned more than the tradesperson.

"There is a long-held cultural and inter-generational prejudice against the trades," says Quinn. "It's inherited ancestry out of the UK - 'my grandparents left England so my father could go to uni'. Scandinavian countries hold the trades close to heart and accord qualifications, which are held in esteem."

Because of a population dip in 2003, fewer school leavers will be available at a time when the economy enjoys very strong employment figures. So an already labour-strapped industry will be even shorter of candidates for apprenticeships. “That needs to be understood, and that needs to change,” says Quinn.

At the moment, BCITO is running 12,000 apprentices. For the last four years the numbers have grown steadily by a thousand a year. But it’s still not enough for all the construction work in the pipeline. “We have a small window of four to five years to address some of our concerns … after that it’s going to get really tough.”

BCITO is attacking the issue on several fronts, the latest being the campaign launched this week. Hand in hand with convincing parents their child would have a good future on the tools is convincing the government to improve the recognition of the skills apprentices gain after four years of on-the-job learning. At the moment, a fully-qualified builder emerges from four years of study with a qualification that is just one step past Year 13 - a Level 4 qualification. A university degree of three years gets you a Level 7 recognition.

Quinn says it’s ridiculous that a fully-qualified mechanic with years of complex study and cognitive thinking skills emerges with an inferior qualification to that of an art history graduate.

Another area the organisation sees as inequitable is training funding. Builders who pass on their life’s skills to apprentices are the only teachers who don’t get paid, says Quinn.

Wearing thin

He says those first 12 to 18 months of an apprenticeship are the biggest burden on the employer. They are paying for a worker who soaks up the supervisor's teaching time; that worker is slower as they’re shown what to do, and is likely to make more mistakes and waste more materials. “It’s an investment which you will get a return from later … not an insignificant investment … but there’s an element of the government free-loading off the goodwill of the industry here. It wears thin after a while.” Quinn points out this is far more than just employers up-skilling their staff - and if those apprentices were at university, their education would be heavily subsidised.

One change in this arena is the Mana in Mahi scheme, launched last August. Aimed at 18-24-year-olds, it’s for those who’ve been on a benefit for six months or more. Under the scheme, the government pays an employer the equivalent of the benefit, and adds in some pastoral care funding as those apprentices work towards a Level Four qualification. A pilot scheme involving Downer NZ sub contractors and a Wellington hospitality group will assess the first 150 candidates, with the idea of signing up 4000 people a year from the middle of this year. The premise is to help the 11 percent of 15 -24-year-olds not in work, education or training schemes.

Quinn says the scheme recognises that some learners need extra support, “but we have said support should be universal no matter where a person is training, as opposed to just unemployed people”. He recognises there are different aims in place here but asks, why just have a scheme for the long-term unemployed? “Good on the government for getting people off the dole but we have to have willing apprentices.”

Such help, however, could expand the number of companies willing to take on apprentices. Right now, just 10 percent of New Zealand’s construction firms train 100 percent of apprentices. Quinn cites a UK scheme where an employer levy goes into a central fund that anyone who trains can gain access to. There is an industry levy in New Zealand, and Quinn suggests that redistributing it in a different way would help more companies take on trainees. He says that’s being looked at by the minister. “We are prepared to partner with the government on this,” he says.

Another development to attract people into the industry is awarding micro-credentials instead of offering only a three- or four-year full building apprenticeship. Quinn says the nature of building now is sub-industries - floor installation, windows, roofing, kitchen companies. It helps take the risk out of volume builds, and encourages specialisation and expertise in different areas. Qualifications are now offered in those aspects of construction and they are recognised as consistent across the building industry. “They’re more aligned to how firms work,” he says. A trial was approved in August last year involving several different trades which “went really well”.

Vocational reforms

However, just as a number of initiatives are looking hopeful in this area, there is a potential cloud on the horizon in the form of the reorganisation of the country's failing polytechnics. Under plans being looked at by the Government, all the country's polytechnic institutions would merge - 16 campuses under one body - and they would be responsible for the classroom-based learning of work-based trades.

“I was pretty positive we were heading in the right direction up till last week when the vocational education reforms were announced,” he says.

Quinn says the industry will meet next week ahead of the close of submissions (on March 27) on the future of skills bodies. "We have to listen to the voice of the sector on this," he says. "There's a risk, if the system is shaken about, to the ongoing education of those currently in training. We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

There is also a fear that the uncertainty of the situation could put employers off. If it does – “will we go backwards before we go forwards? If so we will lose a generation of apprentices … if it does proceed it should be as seamless as possible."  

Quinn acknowledges that with the financial situation the polytechs were in, the situation had to be addressed, but says while there’s never a good time for this sort of interruption, it’s come in the middle of a building crisis.

Progress being made

Another body scrambling to put in submissions to the reorganisation is NZ Certified Builders, which heads up another apprenticeship scheme of around 2000 workers. CEO Grant Florence says there’s just a short lead-in time before the changes are announced – they’re expected around May or June.

He has already had a couple of employers express concerns about possible interruptions to training, even though the Ministry of Education has said there will be no changes for apprentices already on a course of study. “There is a risk that people who want to take on an apprentice will take a breath because of this, which is the last thing we need in this environment. I had a couple of comments (along those lines) made to me last week so we’ve tried to delve into the detail of the proposal. I don’t know how widespread the concern is though.”

Florence says the syllabus at polytechnics is good but he has concerns about service elements that need to be improved. “There’s a fear that the employer will be further away from the policy-makers in this new structure.” He points out that in a changing environment like construction, it is vital that employers are able to communicate directly with those running the classroom elements of the apprenticeship.

On the issue of trying to attract more people into apprenticeships, however, Florence says his gut feeling is that progress is being made.

“The number of people taking up training is increasing. The industry itself has undertaken a number of programmes and campaigns around it.

“The industry has been short of apprentices for many years …. That’s driven by hot and cold cycles in building, but it’s also about the prejudices about young people taking up a trade. It goes back to the ‘Knowledge Economy’ days – a time when in our schooling system there was an absolute drive to get young people into a university. I guess being an expert in a trade dropped under the radar.

“I feel we have started to change that.”

Florence says school careers advisors, teachers – and parents – have a role in continuing the momentum.

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