Economic Recovery

Retrain, really?

The 'jobs, jobs, jobs' budget is based on shuffling people out of service-industry roles into more 'shovel-ready' ones. Is it realistic?

For the hospitality industry, Thursday's Budget made a bold statement: the Government doesn't have much faith in your future. 

That's how the owner of Panhead Bar in Wellington, Matt Maclaughlin, saw it. A sad message to hear, for a man who has been in the industry since he was 13-years-old. 

"The Government's made a pretty bold statement today. They've said that we think that 30 percent of tourism and hospitality businesses will go.

"They haven't given us money because they don't think that we'll be around long-term and, okay, it's good to know where they stand."

If hospitality was out, construction and more shovel-ready occupations were in.

Billions of dollars have been dedicated to retraining people for vocational courses related to construction or practical green jobs. 

However, even some in the construction sector think transitioning an economy and workers out of service-sector jobs into more shovel-ready ones may not be the easy ask Government Budget documents would have you believe. 

AUT construction professor John Tookey said the public had to be realistic about the prospects of retraining people to fit in with an entirely different way of life.

"If you want to be fully trade-qualified as an electrician that's going to take you potentially two years. It's not a five-minute exercise.

"I don't necessarily think you're going to have a wholesale move of individuals into the trades...Millennials don't necessarily see the trades as the way to go."

'This is not going to happen'

Let's clarify that. It's not impossible. The construction industry could be redesigned for a whole lot of people who prefer to work indoors.

The industry would need to be "fully modular". Think one where houses are manufactured in factories then shipped out to sites. 

Tookey said that kind of construction industry could accommodate the large number of people who work in low-skilled service industries today.

"It is possible to do it, but you end up having to not just re-train. You end up having to reconstitute the entirety of the building sector. I do not see that there's going to be massive infusion of capital to be able to do that.

"We're not going to make houses in entirely modular form...assembled on site like Lego. This is not going to happen."

Tookey said the building industry was attractive to certain types of individuals, not everyone.

"To assume it is [right for everyone] just ignores the reality of what the industry is all about which is: it's an irregular job, it's outdoors, you get rained on...it doesn't suit everybody.

"For those people it's suitable for, it's the best thing in the world."

McLaughlin, who got his start washing dishes at a Cobb & Co in Upper Hutt, put it a different way:

"Someone that wants to work late nights and sling bourbons is probably quite a different person to one who wants to track up the Wainui hills and clear gorse."

Or is it? Tamatha Paul, a Wellington city councillor and former president of Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association, said many students chose university over the trades because they hadn't experienced what it was like to work in industries like construction.

"I can think of two specific examples of people who did 'hospo' through uni, but they go and do trades over summer and that's what they want to do because they hate being inside."

"People relish the opportunity of actually doing something or building something."

The 'repositioning' is already happening

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said businesses needed staff right now and we should be "ambitious" in training people for the jobs that existed rather than the ones that were fading away.

"We've already seen it. In tourism, 200 jobs in Matamata: gone. Already they've been placed into our primary production sector and they are earning more.

"That's exactly the kind of repositioning we need...I'll give you another example: right now DairyNZ are campaigning to get 1000 workers before the 1st of June."

Ardern said it wasn't just about retraining people for jobs where there was a skills gap. Providing decent pay and conditions in skills-starved industries would make them attractive for a lot of people who might have given them short shrift before.

"We have a chance through this rebuild and recovery to drive a high-wage economy with decent jobs for New Zealanders. To retrain those who have not had the chance to build their skills."

An expansion

Tookey said a more realistic goal was to expand and broaden-out the skills that people already had. 

"I think expansion of skills, and an addition of skills to the bow, is more likely than a wholesale redeployment."

Equipping people with skills that built on ones they already held would make them able to take on a wider variety of jobs.

There wasn't much capacity in industries like construction to absorb a massive redeployment of workers from other sectors.

Although construction and other trades-related occupations were likely to perform better than hospitality-related industries, they too would face issues during the Covid-19 downturn.

With house-building and other private-sector construction work tapering off there was a good chance many currently in the industry would struggle to find work too.

"All of a sudden there's going to be a surplus of labour and now you're actually recommending that we retrain people to get into the trades?

"The stimulus is all focused around let's build this road and that road or whatever.

"No, what we have to do is create employment and create a skillset so that when all this settles down we can advance society and the economy."

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