Shortage of tradies
There is a shortage of young tradespeople in Southland, according to employers and training organisations.
The prohibitive costs of taking on apprentices, a stubborn culture of negative perception, and simply fewer kids passing through the education system are being blamed for this apparent shortage.
Southern Group Training general manager Glenys McKenzie looks after more than 200 apprentices, and said this year’s intake had not been what they would have liked.
“There’s a problem in school, that if you can’t do anything else, get a trade,” she said. “We still have people who have been directed to us from schools because they’re ‘not university material’.”
Every student was made to feel that they should strive for university, and any other goals outside of that sphere were not taken seriously, despite the fact that trades were “the future of this country”, she said.
“The first year at varsity is being used as a gap year,” she said. “The completion rate at university is appalling.”
“I’ve got apprentices finishing their apprenticeships on at least 30 grand a year and with a mortgage on a house.”
The university graduate could take 20 to 25 years to catch up financially, Ms McKenzie said.
Despite the advantages of trades, many of her students still arrived expecting it to be an easier option because of these ingrained attitudes through school, she said.
“For half of our students, it’s a filler between now and work,” she said. “We are looking for people who will be the captains of industry in the future, rather than just people looking for a paid job.”
For secondary schools, there was a disincentive to promote trades and provide opportunities to get into pre-trade training instead of doing the seventh form, because of funding models based on “bottoms on seats”.
“They’re funding units. So a school does not like seeing little dollar values going out the gate,” she said. “We can’t put our human capital on a conveyor belt, but that’s what we are doing.”
There was a crucial need for careers advisers in schools to be independent, rather than staff members and teachers with no formal training in career guidance.
“We would actually like independent careers advisers, who are trained in the role.”
Te Anau Plumbing owner Fraser Christie said for employers it was too hard to take on an apprentice even when staff were needed.
“There’s no money in training young fellas,” he said. “Training providers are charging $12,000 fees for a four-year course.”
An employer looking for an apprentice essentially had to pay all of the tuition, travel, and accommodation costs for that apprentice, as well as an added administration cut for people like Southern Group Training, he said.
“If the government really wants to stick their head out of the sand and say ‘Let’s do it’ they would fund the training,” he said. “They need to push the fact that a trade is the future of our country.”
Southern Institute of Technology head of faculty for trades and technology Mike Grumball said he too had noticed a slide in the number of trade enrolments.
“It would be fair to say that there has been a decline, quite noticeable this year across all of the trades.”
Part of that was fewer kids coming out of the school system, he said. But there was a place in the trades for those students who tried university, or were pushed into it, but then fell out of education entirely.
“Some of that is driven by the schools themselves, and they’re focusing on pure academic results,” he said. “We really need the students who’ve gone away and done first year law and got dumped, or first year medicine.”
The tide was slowly turning, however, Mr Grumball said. Government initiatives over the past four years had started to target the 70 percent of students who weren’t going to university.
“The vocational pathways is helping to keep kids who might have disengaged when they were 16 to stay in school until the end of Year 13,” he said.
But what wasn’t promoted enough was the opportunity for career progression, travel, and branching out into management and ownership that came with being an experienced tradesman.
“In some respects some industries do it to themselves, and aren’t good at promoting themselves.”
Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay agreed that historically trades had a certain stigma in secondary school environments that could flow into a shortage.
“There certainly has been that culture in the past, until quite recently,” he said. “We do have a shortage, and I’m not surprised that people are having trouble.”
Government initiatives would hopefully begin to transform the culture, but there were still issues.
“There is a real weakness across the country in the way our careers advisers work,” he said. “They need to be embracing our Vocational Pathways.”